The internet killed the electric guitar...

If you recall a couple of months back, an article was released by one of the more mainstream sites talking about the “Death of the Electric Guitar,” and how guitar-based music is going by the wayside and will eventually fade away. That had me thinking, and realistically that’s partially true and partially false. If you pay attention to modern pop music or top 40 songs, then you’ll notice a lack of out-front guitar riffs driving the song. It’s taken a backseat to synths and a plethora of other instruments, or it’s omitted entirely. In other genre’s it’s not quite as bad, but even the likes of Keith Urban and many other country artists are moving away from incredible guitar work to catchier, pop-driven songs. It’s just the nature of the business; it’s what sells. Metal still has a pretty solid foundation, but if you notice it’s not necessarily traditional six-strings doing the heavy lifting. The guitar has taken a step back and become the supporting role again, being layered with effects to make it not even sound like a guitar anymore. You’ll find that even now pedal demos feature not just guitars, but synths as well. All things being said, does that mean the electric guitar is “dying?” 
 
If the electric guitar is dying or is already dead, it’s because the internet and media have killed it. I can read your mind; you’re thinking “What in the heck is he talking about?” Reading that statement out loud, it seems like I’m talking out of my tail, because the internet has made it easier than ever to listen to and interact with some of the greatest musicians on the planet. So how could that possibly kill it? If anything, it has made it even more popular than ever in the music and gear demographic. That’s the exact problem though. Oversaturation and desensitization are slowly killing the electric guitar. Let me explain where my thoughts are coming from.
 
To start out, let’s back up a few decades…if you’re younger than 25, then you may or may not identify with this as much as some of us who grew up in the dawn of the World Wide Web. From the early days of music, what was the easiest way to hear the latest and greatest music? TV, radio, vinyl, 8-track’s, cassette tapes and compact discs were the only realistic and readily accessible form of listening, aside from catching a band live if they came to your area. I’ve heard many countless stories of guitarists picking up their guitars in the first place due to hearing one of those forms of music when they were growing up, and repeating them until the record was worn out. To hear such incredible music and artistry was mind-blowing with the onset of then-modern technology. Imagine discovering Hendrix for the very first time (many who read this may not need to imagine and were there), or listening to the heavy tones on the first Black Sabbath record. 
 
All of these artists were discovered because they took the time to make a record and tour the music excessively. Concert tickets were cheaper, so it was easier to go out and witness these legendary musicians making their mark in the world during their hey-day. In general life was cheaper, it wasn’t as much of a financial endeavor to go out to a bar and see local music, or you could go to a music festival and hear some of the greatest bands of the era at a single venue. Of course, all of that changed over the years. Cost of living has gone up tremendously over time, where money could be set aside for special events like concerts, they have to go towards bills and rent and daily stuff that life throws at everyone. Let’s not get too far off track though, more on that later. In decades past the tools were fairly limited in regards to gear compared to today, so technical ability was what truly set various famous guitarists apart to put their unique spin on the instrument. These styles defined the very core of what spawned countless guitarists to follow in their footsteps. It was new, exciting and completely groundbreaking.
 
Let’s come back to the present and see how things have changed. If you’re into guitar and effects and gear, then it’s safe to say that when you go check Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or any other social media apps, there’s a high probability you’ll find someone playing with incredible talent and tone. Could be a random page sharing it, a friend recording a video, or your favorite brand showcasing a new piece of gear. We’re surrounded by guitar pretty much all the time due to algorithms these platforms use to track your viewing habits and all that fun stuff, and eventually, the bar gets raised higher and higher as the videos get better, the players get better, and the tracks get more technically impressive or over the top. Original music has gone from “Three chords and the truth” to have to think outside of the box to truly create something unique. Our idols have spawned some of the most incredible guitarists on the planet regarding technique. Players like Guthrie Govan, Tom Quayle, Jon Gomm, Tosin Abasi just to name a few… all of these players and countless others transcend what we’ve known for decades as great guitar, combining fluidity, note choice, phrasing and overall mastery of their instrument to define a generation by breaking the mold. But, let’s be honest here. If these social media platforms didn’t exist, how many of these great players would you have heard of organically? Again, it’s a different age where we can readily have digital media nearly instantaneously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 
 
We’re completely oversaturated on all things gear-related and playing that many find any way possible to break loose from those traditional molds. Hence the rise of more noise-making pedals, glitch effects and some far-out weird stuff, because many players just aren’t content with the sound of a cranked Plexi amp for example, or they don’t want to sound like a particular artist. It’s commendable, because they want to create their unique sound. That being said, it’s gone from straight-forward ripping and shredding to creating ambient textures using pads and synths or octaves, layered delays and reverbs and modulation, extended-range guitars and drop tunings, etc. They produce truly unique tones that are far from traditional but provide a different set of tools to let the player’s internal “voice” be heard. So in that regard, the electric guitar is thriving better than ever. The average musician looking to find something unique and different have more options than ever, with more coming out each month.
 
On the flip side though, at what point does it go from playing guitar to playing pedals? Joe Bonamassa sparked up some major heat in the guitar community when he was quoted in an interview with MusicRadar saying:
 
"I’ve really gotten over pedals. I can’t keep up with this craze of boutique pedals that make you sound like everything but your guitar. I can’t get my head around it. So you don’t want to play a guitar [properly] so you buy a box that makes it sound like an algorithm, like you just fired up your computer and you can spend the night staring at your fuckin’ shoes? C’mon man…. I know I’ll get shit for saying this, but it’s fucking lazy. It’s insulting to people who spent 35 years playing and learning, like a lot of players. And we continue to work at it! These guys can barely play a chord but call themselves soundscapists. Get the fuck outta here! It’s bullshit. There’s so much masking and spin going on there. Can we get real for a minute? What do you actually play? Pick up an acoustic guitar… try that!"
 
Is this his way of voicing his frustration with the drop in focus of guitar-driven music, or was it solely a clickbait scheme to drive social media buzz? I’d suspect a bit of both. Either way, it started a firestorm of anger from guitarists who rely heavily on effects to sculpt their sound. 
 
So, what’s next? Realistically nobody knows. The younger generation has more opportunities than ever to either dive head first into guitar or completely ignore it altogether with the plethora of other options trying to take up their time and money. Will we see another Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix? Maybe, but I doubt in the traditional sense. I think it will be someone pushing the boundaries of current tech, not necessarily TECHNIQUE. It’s an ever-changing landscape that we’re all just along for the ride on, but there’s always the hope the old saying from Stephen King is true “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.” Maybe a guitar renaissance is coming in the hopefully not too distant future. The electric guitar isn’t dead; I’d say it’s lying dormant waiting for it’s time to shine again.
 
I'll leave you with a little fun fact to think about: On January 1st, 1962 the Beatles were turned down for a record contract by Decca with the reasoning that "Guitar groups are on the way out." I guess you just never know what the future holds, right?

The Gauntlet has been thrown down

As you may (but you probably may not) know, I use somewhat of a complicated pedal board for the band I play in. We are just a pub band that generally play to a couple of hundred people, with at least 50% of those are generally too drunk to care about what they are hearing. But still, every gig I walk into the venue with literally thousands of pounds of gear. I know a lot of people will say “why bother”, but I do it because it makes me happy and I want to have great tone. So, let’s nip that one in the bud before we get started!

However, an incident at a gig a couple of months ago has made me relook at a couple of items on my board and made me realise I bought a lot of my gear because it’s considered to be the industry standard and it was expected to have that piece of gear if I wanted the feature set. Yes, this means I play each gig with a Strymon TimeLine and Mobius. Before I go any further I do want to say that I bloody love the both of them, they are incredible pieces of kit and it’s easy to see why they are considered to be the industry standard and sell so many every week, month and year.

However… would you be surprised to know that the TimeLine has been out for 6.5 years and that is a LONG time in terms of tech. Granted, it’s received software upgrades in that time (currently on v1.84 as we speak), but from what I understand, the hardware on the new ones you buy in store today is the same as the ones that were first released. Let’s put that into context in a more accessible format. The TimeLine is like having an iPhone 4. Loads of people have them (including my kids) but it’s safe to say, it’s in no way considered to be the cutting edge of technology. If you were considering paying hundreds of pounds for a new phone, would you choose an iPhone 4? No, you wouldn’t. If we are being honest here, the display of the big three Strymons are straight out of a Nokia 3310 rather than an iPhone X.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of new products come out that challenge the mighty TimeLine as the first call MIDI controllable programmable delay pedal. BOSS have come out hard and strong with the DD-500 and to pick the one I have personal experience with, the Source Audio Nemesis is fantastic, albeit a very slimmed down version. I know about the Eventide and TC Electronic (haven’t we all seen endless arguments about which is better), but I’m going to stick with the ones I know properly, otherwise, this will be very long and very boring. When I first got my hands on a TimeLine, I spent hour after hour marvelling over what it could do, how amazing it sounded (I’m a big fan of the analogue through signal that many other pedals do NOT have) and spent literally hours playing with the ICE setting, The Filter, The Dual, Duck, Swell… well, you know, the list is endless. It was great, great fun.

BUT… (and yes, hardened viewers of Game of Thrones may chuckle at that, consider Ned Stark’s opinion of that word) when I had programmed my gig board (which if I am honest, generally only gets played properly at gigs) I realised I didn’t use any of that, I use the dBucket and Digital setting, regular quarter notes and a dotted 8th, and it never goes over 500 or so milliseconds. I have 6 patches I use and they are all pretty standard stuff. Now, if I played a lot of U2 songs or some of the more interesting Floyd stuff etc etc etc, I would use more, but I’m guessing that in so far as a regular gigging musician, I’m pretty much the same as the vast majority of players out there… So, why do I have this beast? It’s simple… because everyone else does and it’s considered, still, to be the best in its class.

To go back to something I mentioned earlier, there was an incident that made me rethink this properly and was somewhat of an enlightening moment for me. The lummox of a bass player that is in the band I play in dropped an XLR on the tap tempo switch of my Mobius and snapped it clean off. I was pretty horrified to notice it had a composite plastic shaft and broke extremely easily. I had a little trouble with Strymon when I tried to order a replacement, but they stood up to the mark and sorted me out, so this isn’t a bitter retort about customer service, but more of a contemplation on how we view and buy gear. I challenged them about the shafts and they said they were the best option for the pedals. Considering they sell replacements for them on their site for $4, I am thinking maybe they aren’t. But, that’s only here because it was the catalyst for my change of thought process.

Simply and honestly, I got the Strymon’s because everyone had one and G.A.S. - I didn’t really think about it.

A good mate of mine distributes Source Audio in the UK and let me borrow the Nemesis after I told him what I actually wanted rather than what I thought would be fun… and guess what, it does absolutely everything I need and no more – and, it’s also over $200 cheaper than the TimeLine in-store. I’m currently in the process of changing the TimeLine over to the Nemesis, and it’s almost hilarious the number of people who say “WHAT? WHY!!!?” when I tell them.

Let’s look at the Nemesis for a minute. It has all the silly stuff, including some interesting pitch shifting type features etc, but it appears to have been designed by gigging guitar players. There are no endless submenus through an awful display to get a decent effect, the selections on the ‘main delay type selector thing’ are incredible – for example, the slapback feature is sublime, the tape setting sounds much more tape like than the Strymon and everything is just there, and just right. Granted, if you are a tweaker, the amount of variables in the TimeLine is quite remarkable, but… for me… well, there is a reason I work for an analogue effects manufacturer I suppose, I just get pissed off with scrolling through things to tweak the lo-pass filter and the subdecaytrouserfilament etc. (on a crappy numerical LCD display - you may be sensing a theme here).  I just want something that I can program in a heartbeat, using only the knobs on the top, and save it quickly to a location and then call up that patch via MIDI.

Since then, I’ve also got a BOSS MD-500 here that will probably replace the Mobius. Because for the price I can sell the Mobius for, I can replace with a brand new BOSS pedal (I know, if you are reading this and thinking “Bloody hell, how much do they sell for in the UK?” but I got offered a great price for one… so….) The BOSS outperforms the Mobius in absolutely every situation, much higher processing power, much stronger unit physically and the display is gorgeous, I can see everything I need to see in order to program the thing. So, pretty soon, I imagine I will be Strymon free.

Like I said above, this isn’t me knocking the Strymon, they are fantastic and have served me well. It’s just about time they updated them, physically – because pretty soon, their age and awkward displays are going to be outdated, if not so already. So, I challenge you Strymon, stop messing around with digital distortions and v2 the big three. Updated with OLED displays, increased processing power (as the Source Audio and everything else that is more reasonably priced has either the same, or more powerful, levels of processing) to refine the tones that are in there (at least attempt to put a decent tape emulator in, PLEASE) -  because if you do, you will once again set the benchmark that other companies will take literally years to catch up on.

The Gauntlet has been thrown down. Let’s leave 2011 tech where it belongs and show me something that will melt my mind… not with silly pointless effects, but something that a regular gigging guy (with a MIDI controller) can really hit ‘that’ mark and do justice to the G.A.S. your products are still kinda generating. If not a v2, but with maybe a streamlined TimeLine v2 to go with it… Because pretty soon, reputation alone just won’t cut it – your reputation is still there, just, but there are others are gaining momentum, and gaining it VERY quickly.

Tumnus Deluxe - Important mod announcement - Nov 2017

Unfortunately, an issue has been found with a select number of the new Tumnus Deluxe pedals that have been sent out. We have identified the problem and have already taken steps to rectify it. Unfortunately, a small number of units were sent out before this was completely identified so it may be that the unit you have in your hands is affected.

In a nutshell, the Tumnus Deluxe circuit is immensely complex compared to the mini and other pedals of its kind, and in order to maintain the core tone and response of the circuit, the signal is routed through so much ‘stuff’; the balance of response and tone has been intense, to say the least. The nutshell within a nutshell is that a few of them have issues with the PCB. Although all units shipped will still sound great, they just aren’t working absolutely perfectly. 

Obviously, we want to make sure that every unit that goes out fits in with the vision that Brian had in his head, specifically his ears, so we are recalling the units that may be affected for a free mod. There is no easy way to do this, so we are offering you to return the unit to us, on our dime, to be rectified. We will send you a prepaid return label, and as soon as we receive notification (for this, we will require you to email us the tracking details) we will send you a replacement unit that is up to the standards that we, and you, demand from a Wampler product. They will cross in the post, and you will have a perfect unit as soon as humanly possible.

There is a quick way to tell if your pedal has the mod: Any Tumnus Deluxe pedal that have a serial number starting with "M" are ones that have already been fixed and will not require sending it to us. However, there have been a few retailers that have had their tech do the fix so make sure you ask them as well (at least for the batch affected... it may be a different method if you're reading this in 2018 or later).

Brian and all of us at team Wampler are extremely sorry that this has happened, but assure you our attention to the detail that drew you to us originally, is the reason behind this recall and our determination that every single unit out there is exactly right is driving this.

Please email us from here if you are a proud owner of the Tumnus Deluxe and you want the universe of awesome tone to be perfect with this free mod!

 

*Please note. Free shipping back to Wamp HQ only applies to USA customers, international customers should return the pedal back to the dealer it was bought from!

Gear Demo - Do's and Don'ts.

Gear demos are a fantastic way to kill time. Whether you’re researching a piece of gear you’re interested in, or just checking out examples of how others used it, or just lusting over gear that’s just out of reach, demos are the gateway to the sounds the pedals make when someone can’t physically try them in person. As of late with the continued growth of the effects industry, there has also been more demo artists popping up, each lending their special touch to coax some great tones out, and hopefully give the end users a great, realistic example of how they can expect the gear to sound. For every fantastic demo artist, there’s also the inverse. For every stellar produced, well-executed video there is a poorly done mess. We try not to judge, but there are a certain set of unspoken rules of things to do (or not do) that most every successful reviewer has in common. I’m going to go through them here for anyone who may be considering starting to demo gear and feel free to add more in the comments section of the post that referred you here.
 
#1: Make sure the guitar is in tune - This seems like a fundamental thing that should be blatantly obvious, but it’s a bit crazy how many demos there are that the guitar is out of tune. In some situations, it’s not quite as noticeable to untrained ears to a certain extent…but in the other instances you question how the demoer can think “Yep, that sounds great. Nailed it!” It offsets the entire vibe and purpose of the video because it’s impossible not to be distracted by it. Taking a couple of minutes to be sure that the instrument is in tune can go a long way for future demos and even the reputation of the channel and the player. With headstock and pedal tuners being cheaper, more accurate and more accessible than ever, it’s worth the investment!
 
#2: NO BARE FEET – I completely get it, it’s comfortable to walk around and lounge about with bare feet, airing out the dogs and what not. However, on a demo (primarily referring to pedal demos), PLEASE take the opportunity to express your personality via some cool socks with crazy designs, or showcasing your favorite pair of worn-in kicks. Nothing can off put a demo like cutting to the pedal and seeing giant, hairy toes descending onto the footswitch like alien ships from the movie Independence Day. Feet don’t bother a lot of people, but they also bother just as many too. Many demoers just set the pedal on a desk and activate using their fingers, and that gives a great alternative where you can still be barefooted and comfortable without alienating some viewers.
 
#3: Choose the right gear for the application – With demos attempting to capture relatively real-life tones, it’s important to choose the right rig to adequately showcase the gear how it was designed to be used. For instance, though it may work to use a Schecter Hellraiser 7-string to demo a Vox-style amp-in-a-box into a Line 6 amp, it might not be the optimum setup to showcase what the pedal was designed to do. On the flip side, it’s not going to help if it’s out of touch too. “Here’s my [Insert brand here] $5k guitar, I’m going to be going stereo into this $10k amp in the left, and this $7,500 amp on the right. Let’s see how this $200 pedal is going to sound.” Having relatively easily accessible amps or something similar allows the player to know a little more clearly what to expect rather than the base tone being either incredibly immaculate or incredibly unwanted.
 
#4: Play to the pedal – Piggybacking off #3, along with knowing what gear to use it’s also important to play to the gear. If a delay/reverb pedal has been aimed at the ambient market, using a metal zone to sweep pick through it won’t give the best representation for what it’s designed for. The same goes for dirt; some genre’s just sound more pleasing using certain effects than others. Using a Klone to play Pantera riffs or a metal distortion to play 12-bar blues isn’t going to convey the product nearly as well as researching to see what each pedal is designed to go for. It’s okay (and often encouraged) to showcase the versatility of a pedal but within a context of something the average player would find usable. 
 
#5: No whammy bar antics when demoing wet effects – This is a personal one for me, and it’s one that I felt needed to be on its own  number. When demoing a pedal such as a delay, reverb, chorus, vibrato, tremolo, phaser, flanger, etc. PLEASE do not mess with the whammy bar the whole time. For me personally this is almost deceptive because it’s applying an effect that some may or may not want with their wet effects, and some may not be able to do it at all if they have a hardtail. It’s okay to do it at the end of a passage or during the outro of the video, but consistently using the bar makes it hard to focus on the true nature of the effect.
 
#6: Reduce dead space, and talking – This won’t apply to everyone because talking can be a vital tool for many YouTube personalities. I'm referring more-so about keeping the focus and not rambling. When doing a demo, it’s good to convey the basic functionality, but intersperse it with playing as well. Rambling and “Um’s” make the audience bored and antsy, sometimes leading them to click away without ever getting to the playing. This also swings back around to #1 with tuning regarding reducing the dead space that people won’t care about in a video. Tuning, switching amps, switching guitars, these things are fundamentals that need to be taken care of off-camera. We all do them every day that we play, and it’s fluff that isn’t needed to get the point across of a product. 
 
#7: Make sure it looks and sounds good – This sums up all of the things mentioned above into a single defining rule of thumb. Make it look and sound great. Using an adequate camera and recording software is essential in conveying the overall “branding” of the channel. Dress appropriately, ensure the mics aren’t clipping or overly compressing, record in an HD format so players can see what is going on in the video. Many YouTubers use multiple camera angles to showcase the playing as well as where the pedal is set. Combining stellar visuals with no dead space, and high-quality audio will result in a professional-looking and sound demo that will keep people and companies coming back for more. Worth noting, the background and setting of a video is just as important as the main focus point.
 
So, what do you think of the list? Are there any more you’d add that stick out immediately in your mind? Is there anything that stands out that you like the most about a particular demo artist? For a great frame of reference on what TO DO, check out the YouTube channels for Brett Kingman, Jay Leonard Jay, Henning Pauly, Pete Thorn, Jim Lil, Tom Quayle, Mike Hermans, Robert Baker, Andy Martin, Dave Weiner, Dan and Mick from That Pedal Show…the list goes on and on. The key is finding the right niche for the demo style that sets apart from the rest, aside from just natural playing skill. It’s the culmination and “whole package” that makes those fan favorites who they are.
 
 

Tumnus Deluxe

Oooops, they did it again. Unfortunately for us, and you, a few dealers saw fit to release details of the Tumnus Deluxe before the release date, so this pedal will come as no surprise to many of you. Shame really, but I’m guessing when a pedal is as eagerly awaited as this one is, it’s fairly inevitable that people will want to get ahead of the game. 

But, that as we say, is already history. We are managing the release now, we’ve officially announced it, so it’s now out there – let’s just get on with what this thing actually does. As usual, I gigged the pedal last week to get a feel for it, and here is what I found from that night and playing with it afterwards. I’ve also extensively A-B’d it with the mini so…

The pedal. First of all, I must say, it’s bloody beautiful. I’m pretty self-deprecating when it comes to my work, but with this, I give myself a pat on the back. It looks ace. Taking the original concept and expanding on it, complete with white LED in the lamppost :D

When I first plugged it in, my initial reaction was that it was much smoother than the mini. Everything seems to be a little more rounded, a little more pleasing to the ear when using it as standalone overdrive. I always found the mini to be a little gnarly and out the box, the Deluxe has been smoothed a little, with a tweak of the gain and the EQ, you can replicate that gnarliness, but you can get a much smoother tone if you require it. For me, this is a massive bonus. Setting the bass and mids at 12, normal mode, buffer in, you get pretty close to the Tumnus. Increase the gain a fraction and the treble a little, you have an almost identical replication of it. However, when you then drop the mids back a little it smooths out somewhat, and when you bring them back up past to where it was, the tone just jumps out at you. Flicking on to true bypass doesn’t do a huge amount initially, it’s a fraction smoother again, but that just shows what a wonderful buffer Brian put in the mini. However, when I started stacking up over drives over the top (more about this later) the true bypass really started to shine.

I dropped the pedal straight into my gig board in place of the mini (it was most amusing, I had a glove covering it on my board just in case a camera phone was out, highly unlikely, but you never know – the singer thought this was hilarious and made repeated jokes about me throwing the gauntlet down) So, my gain section was Tumnus Deluxe into 2-1 of the PaisleyDog. Right away, I noticed that smoothness and clarity that the true bypass gave, I got the original Tumnus tone by tweaking, but ended up using the smoother version. I found that I was boosting the mids slightly, not quite so much top end and keeping the bass ever so slightly rounded off. This gave me a much fuller sound. The Tumnus for me is almost an always-on pedal, the Bravado is immensely unforgiving in its cleanliness, so I use it to break it up a little. Also, when you have the Underdog growling at you, bringing the Tumnus in behind it makes it sound massive with considerable bite. The Tumnus Deluxe with its expanded EQ options gave me slightly more control over that, and allowed me to really tailor that bite and hone it exactly where I wanted it. The one thing I really noticed was that the whole thing was just slightly fuller due to the EQ, it was slightly more pleasing to listen too as the gnarlyness was gone - when I was stacking two overdrives on top of it, as well as compression before, it wasn’t jumping to feedback so quick. I had much much more control over my tone because the base tone was somewhat more refined.

I’m not going to wax lyrical about it, I want you to make up your own minds when you get the chance to play it, but my initial thoughts of this pedal and what it does remain from when I first plugged into it. And those are: it’s smoother, it’s eminently more tweakable to nail THAT exact tone you are chasing and most of all, it has a white LED within a streetlamp on the graphic. Worth it just for that alone I’d say!

Being stuck in a rut

Yesterday, this question was asked on the Wampler Pedals tonegroup on Facebook.

Do you ever get to a point in your music that you just feel stuck where you’re at? And that you find yourself losing sight of where you need to be in your music to inspire yourself to learn new things? What do you do to re-inspire yourself to get you back on track?

This struck somewhat of a chord with me (da daaaaaa) and my personal experience is why I have so many strings (da daaaaaaaa) to my bow as a player. You see, I’ve been in so many ruts with my playing I think I could write a book on how to get out of them. Well, maybe not a book, but probably a blog piece. 

So, in the many ruts I’ve historically been in, how did I elevate myself out of them? The trouble I’ve been in is that I’ve been in one for a while and I was lifted out of it this weekend. But, I’ll get to that in a minute. 

  1. The first and most important thing I’ve done as a player is to see live music. As much as I could, as often as I could. My wife always kinda laughs at me when we see music together as, apparently, I stare at the guitar player’s hands, all the time. My concentration levels are so high I am barely aware of the world around me, I’m just drinking it in. Absolutely everything they do. Notes, rhythms, vibrato, phrasing… everything. I just watch them. Any decent player, that doesn’t have to be decent on the level other than playing in a local pub band, will have something to offer you if you only pay attention. For example, on Saturday our band shared a bill with a Reggae/Dub band called The Barefoot Bandit. I quite like Reggae and Ska, so I was always going to like it, but they had a guitarist in that band (Harry) that enthralled me. He had the kind of right hand you don’t come across often, his rhythm work was sublime – yet subtle, his chord inversions were perfect (he was complimenting the other guitar player of the band) and his solos were genre perfect. When we went on after them I was so inspired to make my right hand stand out better. I didn’t play anywhere near as many notes as I usually do, but I hope I was a little funkier. Ever since then, I’m been working on my right hand, I hadn’t planned to, but it’s opened a new door for me.
  2. The second most important thing I’ve done is learned that it’s not all about your preconception/expectation of a player. View every player you hear/see as a potential teacher and take something away from them for yourself. If you pick something up from a player, take it home and incorporate it into your own. For example, the one thing Vai has taught me over all the years I’ve been listening to him is phrasing. It’s the same lesson I got from Clapton, Nuno, Beck and Quayle. When I first heard those players the last thing I thought about was their phrasing, but that’s what I’m left with from them. I looked past my expectation and found something they had that I didn’t. I unexpectedly learned from them, after I first got into them.
  3. Listen to everything you can bear to listen to. Don’t just listen to your comfy music, the stuff you love, stick something on you wouldn’t normally and try to hear something different in it. When I am coming home from a gig (when the wife isn’t with me) I often listen to Classical Music, or Jazz, or something else I would never listen to at home – so, use your radio. Put a channel on and listen to it. There will be something there for you to latch on to, even if it’s just one thing – the more you do it, the better you will become at picking stuff up. And DON’T just listen to the guitar parts, listen to the phrasing and attack of brass sections, listen to the depth and power that a certain inversion of a chord that is being made by the strings in an orchestra… It’s all the same thing, it’s all just the application of the notes and the intervals between them. Then think about that in your own playing, something will pop out at you.
  4. Don’t be afraid to stop playing, or go to a different tuning, or pick up another instrument. A piano in the house is the best thing for me to have as a guitar player, I often sit down at it and play with chord inversions or different scales over chords on the piano… I look at the patterns on the piano I wouldn’t normally look at on guitar - I try to play guitar stuff on piano and then piano stuff on guitar. Most of the time it sounds like utter crap but the thought that has gone into it ALWAYS opens another door in my head, and when I get back to being me on the guitar again I usually notice something has changed somewhere, something new has arrived.

How does all my waffle above deal with the question posed? When I’ve been in a rut I’ve found that someone, somewhere, will pop me out of it. Harry did it on Saturday, I heard something that I wasn’t expecting, and dived into it. I’ve also found that if I take something from someone musically and put it into my own playing, it will then open another door. So, if you want a challenge, learn a song by someone you never normally would. Then look at the chords underneath it, then take a hook from that song and put it in a completely different one and see what happens. You will find that your playing will become more interesting and you will discover a new direction to play. This is the reason I successfully play a lick from Steve Vai as part of my stock solo in “Bring Back The Sunshine” by Eddie Rabbit - and I’ve been told it sounds good.

Most of all, do not limit yourself to one genre or group of players. Listen to everything, take a walk with a different tuning or a different instrument. Primarily, just stop worrying. Someone will come along and scare the crap out of you enough to make it all exciting again.

Thank you Harry, you did it for me on Saturday.

 

Mojo - The hype is real, right?

Chasing tone has become a hobby as much as it has been finding the right tools for the job. There are a load of options out there for almost any sound you can think of, but despite the smorgasbord of readily available designs, there are some circuits that are incredibly popular that are less than accessible to get ahold of. Whether it’s the increased “mojo,” hype created by word of mouth, waitlists, or general obscurity from the builders and their marketing practices, a lot of gear lust has been generated over these types of circuits. I’m going to look at a few popular mojo-driven methods that may or may not have any plausible foundation in the grand scheme of things.
 
In many cases, most gear businesses start out small, with only a single employee (the owner) and maybe one or two extra people to help. When they’re fledgeling shops like that, it’s a simple way to keep things hands-on, and it’s relatively easy to keep up with demand usually. Small shops lead to less overhead for the business owner, but it also leads to slower production times due to fewer hands to do the work. As business grown, they usually add on employees to accommodate the increased workload, then before you know it there’s a small to medium-sized business with dozens of employees that all would like to make a living, as well as providing insurance and all that fun stuff. However, some shops decide NOT to expand their employees due to various reasons…it could be due to not wanted to increase the workload or the costs associated with employees, etc. So, what happens when demand exceeds the supply provided? Well, there are a couple of options that various shops have done. One way is to only release batches on a first come, first serve basis. This is fairly straightforward in the fact that specific quantities are available, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. This allows the builder to design and build at their discretion and doesn’t hold them accountable aside from the requests to create more.
 
Another option is taking preorders. This is a slippery slope, due to the genuine possibility of taking people’s money but not having the quantity available to fulfil all of the preorders if the staffing isn't adequate. This leads to long wait-times with customers having money tied up in a product that may or may not have a first date of when they’ll get their gear. Sadly, there are things that happen that are out of many people’s control that cause delays, or in some cases, the builder just can’t build but so fast and lead times get longer and longer. The result is agitated customers who often want their money back. And finally, there are wait lists. These are lists that you sign up for that require no money down but often have a varying lead time of a few weeks to over a year. There’s no obligation, so it’s just a pleasant surprise when your name finally comes up. The real kicker with all of these cases just mentioned, is that all of this waiting leads to massive amounts of hype and gigantic markups in the used market. It’s a way for the lucky few to capitalize on the good fortune, offering to fulfill the GAS immediately (at a price), instead of making the player wait for an indeterminate amount of time to get their pedal. The result is hyping up these harder to find offerings as rare and mysterious and highly sought after. The Klon is a perfect example, and the KTR is a more current version of it. When the KTR first came out, shops sold out almost instantly when they were priced right around $269 or so, but looking on Reverb and eBay, they were marked up to $450 - $700. It’s a pay to play market, and time is money when it comes to rare gear. 
 
Next up, let’s look at one-offs, special events, and custom or limited colors/graphics, and “accidents.” We all like something a bit different that stands out from the crowd. It’s fun and unique and sits like a fun little nod to being awesome on your board. I love custom color pedals or custom graphics that are different from the production model. There’s a certain “something” to them. The same goes along for special event things, like themed pedals (holiday, jokes, etc.). It’s a kind of nostalgic, cheeky way of chasing tone and having a bit of fun with it. But let’s look at the reality of the situation: unless otherwise stated by the company as being unique or coming with a different set of functions, these are the same production models internally, but with a recase for a special color. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, and I love them, but it’s interesting how that becomes a marketing tool for the used market as well as the company. For companies, it’s a nice little nod to the players who enjoy their products, and often they’ll be a limited or very limited run. But if you search used ads there will definitely be a tag-line of “Custom color – rare.” Though it may be true that it’s limited, I suppose it just depends on the buyer as to what the value of a rehoused pedal would be? In situations like ours, we did a limited-edition batch of pink Tumnus’s, along with a few pink offerings over the years with all proceeds going to breast cancer research. The goal was to raise money for a charity, but we’ve seen used prices on these pedals skyrocket lately. The same goes for the Underdog, except it was also for charity but used prices have jumped to $400 or more. Not that the tones aren’t spectacular, but even Brian was taken back by how much markup things had due them being a bit harder to find. This is not meant to crap on companies who do limited runs; it’s more so a look at it from the business side as well as the consumer side.
 
Next up, let’s talk about eras of gear and the lust for certain versions or periods of time that these pieces of gear are manufactured. Generally speaking, new versions come about because the company felt a need to improve or change the design. This could be to increase the longevity of a pedal by upgrading components, swapping parts for less noise or adding features. Despite these facts that the new versions are designed to improve the overall sound, longevity, and ease of use for the players, there are still some out there that feel certain versions or eras of pedals have more mojo compared to current models. Again, some of these models may be harder to come by (but not always), and they supposedly sound much better and respond much better than the later version. I’ve seen this a lot with the Fulltone OCD and several others; we even have some of our older discontinued or revised pedals being collected. Admittedly there are some things that warrant thoughts like that, such as the Pinnacle Deluxe v1 having a very different control scheme than the Pinnacle Deluxe v2. In that case, it’s just a change of functionality and not necessarily a mojo thing. In the end, pedals are like puzzles, where all of the pieces have to be put together to reach the final project. Most of the time, it’s the same parts going in the same positions on the board, using the same solder. All that changes are the hands that solder the parts in or setup the boards. Sonic differences that may occur are the results of part tolerances being slightly different because it’s not always a scenario where every part is identical. The end goal is to make them as consistent as possible, and tuning them to be that way has been a vital part of keeping the pedals consistent over the years.
 
Jumping back a bit, I’m sure you saw me mention “accidents” earlier. Some of these truly are accidents, some of them are sadly not. Before releasing a pedal, Brian typically sends out prototypes to be tested (maybe one, maybe two or three). There are also some prototypes that are sent to trusted higher profile artists, their band and things like that. With the way the world is, people come, and they go in positions, and sometimes gear goes with them. The instances where those prototypes end up for sale is where it’s disheartening. Those prototypes are lent out expecting honesty and trust that they’ll be kept out of the reach of the public. This isn’t because there’s some magic, it’s because the circuit may or may not be complete, and the end goal of an excellent product that sounds great, functions great and is reliable is the end goal. However, the prototypes are considered gold, because it’s a scenario where it’s an opportunity to get something that no one else has. As someone once said regarding grabbing an unreleased pedal, “I just had to, ya know?” When in fact, no they didn’t. If you’ve been keeping up with our social media outlets (and especially our tone group on Facebook), we’ve been experiencing a few more leaks than we’d like to of unannounced pedals being posted for sale or shared by dealers. We plan ahead for months on a release, down to the smallest detail. It’s not necessarily the result of the release but more so the process we use to allude and build up to it. This is completely undermined and destroyed when leaks happen. We completely understand the excitement and the urge to share the info with fellow tone-chasers, but it also hits us hard mentally because of having the rug pulled out from under us so to speak. It’s discouraging and infuriating and sad at the same time.
 
So why did I write this blog and kill hopes and dreams? Mainly to set the record straight and clarify what’s going on with the magic in these sought-after pedals. Mojo is what you make it out to be. If it’s a pedal or guitar or amp that just feels right and connects, then that emotional connection can be considered mojo. On the other hand, there are many times where mojo created as a byproduct of desiring what can’t be obtained, the chance to try something that has been so hyped up, and the desire to stick out from the crowd. 

Synergy Amps - GAS

This week I want to tell you about a piece of gear I first played nearly a year ago. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while, as I wanted to wait until it was released, and it just has.

The company is called Synergy Amps and I’m a fan. And before you start to think cynically, I’m not employed by them! 

As always, there’s a story attached to this for context, so I’ll get that out of the way first. When at NAMM I suffer horrifically from jetlag. As Cali is 8 hours behind the UK my sleep patterns are destroyed and I literally get about 4 hours of sleep per night, I’m not there for long enough to try to force it around with sleeping tablets, so I just live with it. The best thing about this is that I’m up at the crack of doom and generally get to the show each morning LONG before the doors are open. I usually take this time to do a line check on the rig and make sure everything is in place before the people attend the show, start attending.

One morning I was there so early the only people on the booth complex we are part of, the wider Boutique Amp Distribution booth, were myself, Bruce Egnator, Groover Jackson and my buddy Steve Elowe. Now, Bruce and Groover being there isn’t integral to this, but I just wanted to make you all sound the name drop horn in your heads – it still freaks me out that these guys are just milling around to talk too, a real pinch yourself moment! The Wampler rig was fine so I wandered off to see Steve who was sat at a computer, with guitar in hand, rocking hard. He was also gently cussing under his breath about latency issues, so I offered to help. He got me to play while he did something to the computer. 

I was playing through the new Synergy Amps rig.

At first I just played enjoying the tones, then he started to press buttons and all these different sounds were appearing, so I was playing different stuff on the fly as the sounds were so radically different. He then stood up and said “That’s better”. The computer was now behaving how it should so we had some time to play with the Synergy rig.

Let me fill you in on what this thing is. Basically, Synergy is a modular system that has ports which allows you to add various modules that sound and behave like the amps they are based upon. You buy the dock, a single or double module unit, and then load the amp module in. The docks are 12AX7 driven with a ton of different out options. There is a straight “preamp out” and an emulated out to go into your PA/desk/DAW - I was initially playing through the preamp out to a power amp, but once Steve had sorted the latency on the computer he pushed it over to the emulated out. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I had an incredibly authentic Soldano SLO100 tone coming straight from the studio monitors that sounded EXACTLY the same as the preamp out, and from what I can remember about playing an SLO (which I have played through a lot) exactly the same as the amp – not only tonally, but in respect of response. The way it responded to my picking dynamics, the volume pot and the gain… man… the gain... 

At that point he started to show me the differing modules, which could be changed in a matter of seconds. One minute I was ripping through the SLO, and then quickly through a Friedman BE which was just roaring, then back into a TDLX which had the kind of clean tones you’d expect from a blackfaced, or tweed finished amp, then a Morgan AC that was SO glassy… and then… and then…. and then... 

After I’d played it for seemed like 5 seconds, which in reality was almost ¾ of an hour, I was left thinking about the practical uses of this system and where it sits in the market place. The first thing that got me, other than the tone that was coming from it, was the ease of use and how practical it can be in any set up. In a way, it was like having a modelling system but without the endless sub menu’s and degree in computer science to work it, or let’s face it, if you are anything like me, tons and tons of stuff that you would just never, ever use. This I think is where this product is going to sit, right in the place where people want a ton of options, but only the specific ones they require, and something that has real tubes, real knobs and real tone. You can literally have a mountain of boutique amps available, at a fraction of the cost and using a fraction of the room, just ‘there’.

The trouble I’ve always had with the modelling stuff, apart from ‘that’ reaction (which let’s face it, that gap is being bridged all the time), is that you generally have to get rid of your original amp set up and get a full range amp/speaker to go with it. You don’t get the best results from those things going into your amp, they still sound great, but they work best when everything is modelled and you are going direct. Then, they sound incredible. The beauty of the Synergy system is that it can be run direct within the loop of your favourite amp, giving you multiple new channels to play with. For many players, those that don’t want the computery stuff and love their rig already, this HAS to be the best thing, well - as we say over here, since sliced bread. Also it works flawlessly direct into your DAW, or PA, it has a great FX loop (so you can run your favourite effects in there, the ones that were originally in the loop of your amp if you used it that way)… I’m not sure who is behind this system, but I doff my cap in their general direction. 

From looking at the website, I can see that the docks are $499 for the single and $799 for the double, there is also all tube heads available and a power amp. The modules are $399. So, let’s look at a boutique level amp, which I’m guessing you will all agree tends to be around $2k to buy and generally only give you the sound associated with that amp, you get what you get and nothing else. So, consider this, If you have a great amp you can buy the dock and 2 modules for ¾ of the price of a new and different sounding head, and then keep adding to it for $399, you will start to build up an amp collection that is worthy of Joe Bonamassa. Then think that these modules are small enough to get two into a single 19” rack unit. Even if you have 8 modules and the Syn2 (double port dock) it comes to less than 2 full boutique level amps. That’s 8 amps for the price of two. Once you have the dock, the modules are so cheap GAS will be screaming for new ones all the time.

I don’t get excited about new technology products very often mainly because I like tubes, knobs and instantly available tone and most of the time these days, all those things appear to be missing in new innovative technology. New gear concepts these days usually consists of “sitting down with a manual the size of a novel and 3 hours just to get the amp tone you want that’s hidden in the middle of other stuff that appears to have no practical musical use to anyone”.

I want one.

www.synergyamps.com

 

 

 

Pick a Partscaster

If you are in the market for a new guitar, there’s no better time than right now to be into the chase for tone. It seems in the past few years that a plethora of builders have popped up, each excelling at their craft with the ability to take the ideas you’ve always dreamt of and make them a reality. We’ve come to a stage in the gear community where artistic expression is at a peak, where if you want something unique and feature-laden, it’s certainly doable. Want an accurate recreation of your favorite vintage instrument, down to the pickups and even decades of wear and tear? All those options are entirely possible and at varying price points. The market lets the player decide how much to spend, and a dream guitar can be had by various methods; whichever suits the player the best. The first thing that people often bring up when discussing custom guitars is pricing. More often than not, the pricing for a custom guitar can rival or significantly surpass the cost of an off the shelf guitar. There are a lot of factors that go into why that’s the case, which I’ll dive into a bit later. I’m going to look through a few variables and options regarding custom guitars and ways to go about achieving them, and what makes them great and what some of the drawbacks are.
 
Let’s start off by looking at traditional guitars, and why guitarists prefer the tried and true designs as the basis of the perfect personalized instrument. If you look back to the 50’s and 60’s of guitar history, you’ll see that the likes of Leo Fender, Les Paul, and a few others seemingly hit the proverbial nail on the head when they created their takes on the electric guitar. So much so that each of the aforementioned builders and their subsequent companies have built stellar, roadworthy guitars that have been in the hands of millions upon millions of guitarists worldwide. They’ve become so iconic that the sound of these guitars is instantly tied to our favorite guitarist through the years. When you hear a Strat, a plethora of artists spring to mind (in no particular order): Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, David Gilmour, Dick Dale, Robert Cray…the list of Strat players is staggering. Teles are the same with the likes of Albert Collins, Prince, Andy Summers, Keith Richards, James Burton, Muddy Waters. Gibson? Billy Gibbons, Slash, Jimmy Page, Angus and Malcolm Young, Peter Green, Albert and B.B. King, Randy Rhoades, and these are only just barely scratching the surface of prominent players that I’d be willing to bet have had some form of influence on every player, in some way. At the same time for all of these incredible players listed, a massive amount of them have delved into the custom realm, whether it’s through artist-series guitars, creating their own unique designs, or using boutique builders. These are our guitar heroes, and their sound shaped generation after generation of players to come, even to this day after many have long passed. It’s no wonder many players would use those famous tones and the foundation and springboard for crafting their own sound. Each used their respective instrument to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.
 
I won’t go too much into current models of various companies, but there are still a load of different models by too many companies to list that follow the traditional approach. Companies like Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, etc., or revised versions of the classics with personal accouterments like unique finishes or relicing, and so on. Along with standard models that have a streamlined setup with neck shape, pickup combinations, and finishes, many of those companies offer signature guitars that famous artists regularly use (most of the time). These are customized versions that match the player, and great options for providing a variety of different guitars at a cost-effective price point. Sometimes though, these standard models can get the player close to where they want the guitar to be, but not exactly. This is why the guitar parts business has been a boisterous endeavor. There are a considerable number of shops you can visit online that let you piece out the perfect build, down to neck radius, finish and inlays to the routing options for various bodies and bridges control cavities. All things that are made to be easily swappable on the stock instruments to make them a bit more customized to the player. Swapping and upgrading is a cost-effective way to make a guitar customized to the player without going out and fully commissioning a custom build. Many of these online shops offer custom finishes, and some even offer relicing services to make the guitar look like something that had been used on tour for 40 years with tones of use and abuse.
 
These pieces and parts lead me into partscasters. Partscasters are the amalgamation of various parts in the attempt to find the right fit and feel and sound by creating it from a pile of parts sourced from various locations. Eddie Van Halen was one of the pioneers that led people to start hacking into the guitars and building what suited their personal needs when companies didn’t offer it. He used a Gibson PAF in an old strat-style body and created some of the most memorable music that would spawn hundreds of thousands of guitarists. He found what worked for him and made it his own. When going for a partscaster build, the sky is the limit. It could be a neck based off of a vintage-style Strat paired with a MIM Telecaster body with a pre-wired set of pickups from a small shop that hand-winds their own pickups. Or you could get a Flying V-shaped body with a neck setup for 12 strings, with pearl inlays and a figured ziricote fretboard. See what I mean? You can get as “out there” and intricate as you’d like, or build after the classics. Sites such as Warmoth and USA Custom Guitar allow you to pick the various details of your build, so they come as finished or as unfinished as you’d like them to be. This allows the player to simply screw everything together and do a bit of soldering and have a functional guitar on a relatively decent budget. I say relatively because depending on what choices are made with the types of woods used and various finishes, the costs can add up quickly. In the end though, if you’re coming out of it with the exact guitar that you want, then it’s worth it. The Pros are that you get control in the details of the construction of the guitar within a set number of given parameters, but the negative is that it does require a bit of experience and knowledge to get the guitar to where you want it properly. Setups are vital for having them stay in tune and function properly, and for inexperienced players, it can be an exercise in frustration. The same goes for soldering, especially if it’s not using a prewired kit. Without proper soldering, it can lead to increased noise or no sound at all. 
 
The next thing that truly takes the guitar into the “custom” realm is having one commissioned from a company that builds to spec. These are often more expensive, but the player gets considerably more control, with the bonus of the attention to detail and experience that comes from the builder’s history. Many builders still offer a standard line of body shapes that they will do, some traditional and some very modern and unique. Like the partscaster, you get to pick out your dream instrument, from the type of wood the body is made of, pickup routes, a plethora of finishes, the scale length of the neck, radius, neck shape, what frets are used, nut type, tuners, pickups, custom wiring…everything. The attention to details is what sets these guitars apart from the standard guitars that are off the shelf. Having a guitar that’s perfectly fitted to your playing style, the feel, and sound of the pickups makes you want to pick the instrument up more because you enjoy playing it. These builders have become experts in their fields and have listened to customer feedback, evolving and honing their craft to provide those little nuances that make each creation so special. A big question that comes up is “Is it $$$ better?” It depends on how you look at it. In some cases, depending on what is commissioned, there won’t necessarily be a huge difference. If it’s a T-style with a fairly run of the mill setup with two pickups and a 3-way selector and a fairly known color, then to some that may not be worth it. The details of the fret leveling and action and overall playability would be the biggest upgrade.  Is it worth several hundred dollars extra to some people? Most likely not. That’s the beauty of chasing tone and falling in love with the guitar, is that everything is subjective and will be different for everyone. Variety is the spice of life, so they say. The quest for tone is unending, and finding the perfect feeling and sounding guitar is another piece to that puzzle. What are you willing to pay for it?
 
Personally, own a few of each configuration mentioned above. I’ve got a ‘12 Les Paul Traditional that I upgraded with 50’s wiring and bumblebee capacitors to increase the range of tones available in the tone knobs. The new American Pro Strats just hit the spot, stock off of the shelf (admittedly I always block the trem, just because I’m a hardtail guy). I’ve also got a couple of Crook Custom telecasters that are decked out completely with custom finishes, neck specs, and even G-Benders. There’s a soft spot and something special about each one that makes them fit what I’m looking to do. The one thing I will say, that for me (I don’t speak for everyone), that custom guitars do not necessarily make me play any better, skill-wise. I may enjoy playing more when it fits just right, and I can get into it more, which subsequently makes me practice and the long game is an improvement, but switching from one guitar to another doesn’t have a dramatic effect. The guitars output what your mind and yours hands put into them and no amount of money can buy technique. That’s something I had to learn as I was starting off, and it’s stuck with me all this time.