Talking about gear (93)
As you can expect, half my life appears to be talking to people that have a new pedal day. Often it’s on Social Media congratulating them, or maybe it’s after I’ve advised them what to buy, or in rare cases talking to them if something isn’t right or they don’t bond with it.
This week marked my first personal NGD in over a year. A Helix HX effects.
Before I give you my thoughts on it, I want to tell you why I’ve gone down this route as it appears to surprise a lot of people, but in reality, it’s just the next logical step for me. So, before I write about that, I want to write about the board that I am saying farewell too and the reasoning behind it.
When I started gigging again it was after a short 17 year hiatus from being in a regular band. I was nothing short of prolific in the 90’s and I got bored. I went from guitar, to bass, to live sound… because you know, I still wanted to gig, but I got bored and stopped doing it... I soon then went to University in a different country. Well, in Wales, but you know, that’s a different country. Four years after going to University I was the proud owner of a nice and shiny law degree and a copious amount of debt. A crippling amount in fact. I had just met the person who would go on to change my life and we got married, two kids arrived completing our family in the 4 years that followed. Because of this, my gear was sold so gigging was just out of the question.
Once I started down the path I am today with Wampler (and back in the music instrument industry again) the gear started to reaccumulate around me and I found myself being able to gig again (I had played some over the years, but it was using someone else’s gear). The only local band that I wanted to play with lost their guitar player (of 24 years) and they asked me, so I said “Hell yes!” My first gigs with the band had a simple rig. My beloved PRS Brent Mason-Polytune 2-Mini Ego-Tumnus-Dual Fusion-FTE-TC Mini HOF into a Fender BDri. It was small, simple and sounded great. But I wanted more.
Over the following couple of years, the board changed from a PT Nano 16 to a two-tier Temple board, Line6 G30 wireless, One Control OC-10 looper that had in it the following… Polytune 2, Tumnus, Paisley Deluxe, Strymon Mobius (split pre and post), Strymon TimeLine, TC Quintessence, TC MiMiQ, TC Mini HOF, Digitech Drop… the TimeLine was replaced by the Source Audio Nemesis and the Mobius by the BOSS MD-500… into the Fender BDri (used as a head) and a Quilter 101MR into a homemade 2x12” cab.
Yes, it got silly.
This is my thought process throughout this. Back in the 90’s I adopted modeling early on with the Roland GP100, into a Marshall 100/100 tube power amp into a 4x12, purely because I liked the control of it. At the touch of a midi footswitch button, I could change everything from the amps to various delays and modulations… It was awesome. But, the dirt/amp channels didn’t sound great. These days, I’m more than happy with my Wampler dirt section as they are so responsive to my touch and volume control, so all I need is a basic decent amp with a good clean sound and my dirt needs are covered… but boy do I love having custom mod and delay patches set up for songs. It gives it that extra bit of sheen I couldn’t get from something that wasn’t programmable. I 100% compromised on the tone and purity of the FTE for the TimeLine… that was improved with the Nemesis. The Mobius was a new addition as I didn’t have any mod before… and the MD-500 improved on that. So, that was my gear journey up to this point.
And now the reason for getting the HXFX.
Three years ago I did something rather nasty to my spine which resulted in me literally spending 6 months on my back. I couldn’t stand, walk or even sit down. Fortunately, my job is a “home working” position so I was able to do everything I needed to from my bed. Once I finally had the operation to put it right (which the surgeon said “You have the 1 in a 1000 version of this, the worse it can be”) I was back up and about again, ready to get out there… and I joined the band 2 months after. It was between then (Feb 2016) and now that the board grew to the silly state it is in now.
Then, the horrible thing happened… Two weeks ago I was lifting my board into the back of my car and my back screamed “NO” at me. It was, fortunately, a warning shot across the bows. For a couple of months, I had been suffering a tightening across the small of my back after gigs, but I put that down to being 45 and generally unfit but this was different. This was my back say “That’s enough Jay, sort your shit out mate, I can’t do this much longer”. With that, I had a decision to make. It’s obvious that I can’t keep carrying around this monster board so I needed something that will meet me in the middle. And then I discovered the Helix HXFX. So, I got one. The main thing that attracted me was the ease of use of programming it, I detest reading product manuals and this is easy to use as it’s all on the little screen things, so for a Luddite like myself, it’s perfect.
First Impressions… it’s great. There are a few things I’m compromising on in terms of tone using this, but I can live with them. You see, I’ve gone back to the PT Nano 16 again. So, it’s Line6 G30 receiver, into the Helix, Tumnus and Plexi Drive in the loops, out to a Black 65 and into the Quilter 101MR. It can do everything the other rig can do, almost identically, but weighs ¼ of my previous board. The Quilter weighs literally 1/50th of the BDri and with a Black ’65 in front of it set to zero gain makes it sound like the Fender, or close enough in a live pub band situation. I’ve gone from 4 painful trips back and forth to the car each way to doing it all in one go easily.
I’ll come back in a couple of weeks and give you the full rundown of how the rig stands in a live situation, but so far, it’s looking and sounding really good. The Helix HXFX has a lot of limitations and a couple of glitches I will need to work around, but I am confident I’ll find a way. Most importantly, it gives me loads of opportunity to talk to my friend Ross at Line6 who just LOVES it when I start to pick apart their product and say things like “Why does it do that, that’s a bit silly” and “we would have done this differently” as only industry friends can… it’s the simple pleasure of this job!
You may have noticed that we dropped a new pedal last week - the Pantheon Overdrive - a pedal that we’ve been asked so many times for I’ve stopped counting… it was Brian’s take on the old Marshall BluesBreaker pedal that was released in ’91 and discontinued not too long afterward. Safe to say it’s been well received by virtually everyone who has seen it and there have been some amazing demo’s out in support of it that shows just how good, and bad, it can sound in any given situation. I must say, release day is stressful and delightful all at the same time, I love it when it’s over but not as much as Lisa does, as apparently, I’m an arse in the weeks running up to it… basically, I think we all are as every release matters.
It’s been a blast reading all the internet arguments over it, so I thought I would do a little research and answer some of the questions that I’ve seen asked, maybe correct a few statements that have been said as fact, and give you an insight to the process that brought this latest tone machine to market.
This conversation started, as far as my failing memory allows, about 7 years ago, when myself and the Jeff Baker (who worked for us at the time) said to bDub that we need the following versions out of the following classic circuits. K, TS, and BB. The Clarksdale came a couple of years later once Travis and Max shouted about it enough, the Tumnus a couple of years after that because I was the one talking endlessly about it and finally, his take of the BluesBreaker is now here – because we kept seeing the same things on line. Not only were people asking for Brian’s take, but they wanted one NOW. The reason these three have taken so long to materialise is that Brian doesn’t actually enjoy making and designing pedals like this, for the want of a better phrase, something that is close to an existing circuit, he would rather start from scratch but the overwhelming amount of people made it impossible for us to ignore them, they wanted it bad, so we provided!
The main interesting thing I’ve seen is that one of the dealers put the pedal up on their site for sale using a version of the dealer copy we sent them. Now, it may surprise you to know that we consider ourselves a B2B business and we sell to businesses far more than we do to end customers. So, we have different versions of our copy that goes to different customers. Different things are highlighted, different benefits are shown. Basically, when we ‘write’ with the end customer in mind, it’s all about the tone and how we think it will make a player sound the best they can. When we 'write' to the retailers, it’s all about “look at how many of these you can sell”. After all, you know, we are a business and we intend to stay in business for as long as we can - so we market hard to all of the customers in the way that appeals to them the most… Most retailers aren’t interested in tone, they are more interested in a pedals USP and how many they can sell.
A lot of people jumped on a few things from this straight away, and it was jumped upon extremely passionately. It always is. The gear market, when you look at it objectively, is sometimes hilarious in its partisan views about companies. We have customers who love us and appear to want to fight to the death in order to protect our reputation, and others do so as well for other companies… which is the reason heated debates happen... As a point of interest though, one of the guys who was shouting the loudest about us being cloners on Facebook did so with a profile picture of him with a Suhr classic S in his hands. Pretty certain I don’t have to explain that one too much...
OK, so back to the point of this. Yes… the Pantheon is a direct descendant of the old Marshall Bluesbreaker (note - the Pantheon was originally going to be called Paragon, but we changed it). In that respect, it’s no different from the JHS Morning Glory, or the AnalogMan King of Tone, Prince of Tone, the Snouse BlackBox and countless other pedals I can mention. The only one of those that is an original is the Marshall, the rest are variations of. Please note, the Xotic BB is NOT a Bluesbreaker style, it’s a TS with a baxandall active bass and treble, but that’s another story.
I have written this from my own limited knowledge of circuits, so forgive me if it’s not 100% accurate – pretty certain it’s on point though, I didn’t feel the need to properly learn this stuff as I know a guy who’s fairly well versed in it all. It’s the same reason he didn’t learn PS, AI, FCPX etc etc. To show good form though, I’m not going to publish our own schematics of these pedals, but take the ones that are readily available online - but I will show you part of the Pantheon schematic, although part of it will be obscured… but worry ye not, I expect the full reverse engineer of it to appear online before I’ve finished writing this sentence.
To quickly go back to the Xotic BB, here is the schematic of that, as you can see, it’s got 4558 in it so it MUST be a TS, right? But seriously, it’s basically a modded TS circuit. One that sounds amazing… so, let’s not have any more BB is a BluesBreaker conversations please!!
Here is the original schematic of the BluesBreaker… for the purpose of this conversation, I’m going to be mainly referring to the one marked as “Original Wiring” that has been presented with Comic Sans. I apologise for you having to witness something in Comic Sans, it is out of my control. Please take the time to look at it and then compare it to the others that follow.
Next up, the JHS Morning Glory. The cornerstone of virtually every P&W board I’ve ever seen.
As you can see, it’s pretty bloody close to the original. There are some obvious changes most importantly there is a jFet volume booster at the end that has the potential to be really very loud on the output (other pedals afterward beware lolol)… Which is interesting as the main issue I remember from the original BB was that it was just too darn quiet, so Josh identified the main issue and boom, fixed it. You’ll also notice that it has a switch on it, which flits between normal amounts of presence and some more, giving it a little more flexibility.
From here, let’s go to the GrandDaddy of all the descendants of the original BB, the mighty King Of Tone. There is nothing I can say about this pedal that hasn’t already been said, it’s got the greatest reputation for good reason, because it nails that tone perfectly. In my opinion, it was the BB that Marshall should have made in 1991.
Here is the schematic.
As you can see, once you adjust to the fact that there are two identical circuits running side by side, if you look at one side only there is once again a handful of difference between this and the others, we have some internal dip switches to change the clipping style, an internal trim pot for presence and the high gain version just has a different value gain pot IIRC. Therefore, neither of these pedals could be deemed to be an original, just a development of the original theme.
Moving on… here is the actual schematic for the Pantheon as drawn by Brian.
Once again, it’s pretty bloody close to the original, with a couple of changes put in for good measure that Brian always puts in. But, fundamentally it’s the same thing as the others with a couple of tweaks. All controls are on front and there is a bass control done in the way he prefers. We have soft, hard and combined clipping… same thing, just done differently.
If you want to know the differences, here they are in a nutshell.
The original = noninverted opamp, through some EQ stuff, into an inverting opamp, into fixed/set presence control and out again.
Increased quality of parts, has increased output and presence switch. In terms of the circuit, it’s louder and more versatile.
2 pedals in one, exclusive style diodes that are of increased quality (that are hard to come by), presence and clipping options inserted easily inside and the option to have the gain pot replaced for a higher gain version. The differences are in the circuit that around R3 you get a little more highs and a little more gain – overall, it’s just more flexible.
All controls on front, increased quality of parts, 3 way selection of clipping diodes, 3 switchable stages of gain, converts the signal upon exit to a much lower impedance than the others (meaning, it “buffers the signal”), adds even more stability due to the style of parts used… we think it’s the best so far.
A very, very, VERY interesting vlog was released from Brian today, and it is about a subject that has perplexed me for many years. It’s directly related to one of the most common and least thought our retorts on social media “Tone is all in the fingers, man”. This may be a controversial subject, but you know, what’s life without a little controversy now and then?!
As many of you who have regularly read my blog over the years will know, I came up through the local scene by being a prolific jammer. Back in the day (not so much anymore, unfortunately) several local pubs would either have straight up jam nights or booked bands to play with the sole intention of knowing it was going to end up as a beer sozzled jam with everyone just playing with everyone else. Not only was this immense fun for all involved, but as a young player this was an invaluable learning ground for me and made me the player I am today. The most prolific I regularly went to were the Sunday afternoon gig at “The Old Firehouse” and the now legendary local jam night at “The Bowling Green”, both in my hometown - Exeter, Devon. UK. The great thing about these jams/gigs was the fact that every week the same faces would turn up and a carousel of about 50 other players that made it when they felt like it would also turn up, so over a long period of time, I got extremely familiar with all kinds of players. As we are all friends, most people couldn’t be bothered to bring their own instruments and once the beer had started to be consumed, everyone just played whatever was there, at all times. Because of this, I heard the same players on various pieces of gear multiple times.
What did I learn during these years… well, in the times I can remember clearly (remember, beer), every player had their own style and technique, obviously, which gave their playing a certain character and this character always shone through. But, their overall sound was determined by the gear they were using. When you really listened, and I mean really listened, you ‘could’ say that tone was in the fingers, but I think it’s actually a different word that should be used here… maybe a couple of words. Those are ‘character’ and ‘personality’.
Here is a great example, Joe Satriani was recorded using extremely ‘low rent’ gear playing one of his more famous tracks, “Surfing With The Alien”. Please, give it a watch…
And, in case you didn’t read the description, Joe is playing ‘Pignose’ (I know, I’ve never heard of them making guitars either) S style (single coils), a Digitech RP200 into a Peavey Backstage 30. Joe is using the Wah on the Digitech and I expect amp modelling etc from the unit as well, so… you know. It’s not going to sound like his rig when he’s touring/recording!
When you watch it, there is, without doubt, all of Joe’s character and personality is shining through. There is no doubt that it’s Joe playing. It’s in the way he picks, the way he attacks the strings and the way he uses vibrato is what is defining the music that is coming from the gear, but the gear is still defining the tone… unfortunately. When you listen hard, the tone is quite nasty, and I’m quite glad it’s only a phone that’s capturing it as if this was mic’ed properly it would sound sharp and gnarly. But, you know, it still sounds like Joe. Up to a point.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to over the many many years I’ve been seeing the same players playing their own and different gear over and over. Fundamentally, your tone that the audience hears will be defined by the gear you are playing. Because the gear will be dictating how much clipping you have, how much gain that works alongside that clipping, the EQ before, during and after that clipping, the type of guitar you are playing and what pickups it is – style of bridge – wood…, how the amp is constructed, the speakers you use and their size, and all the parts variables that go into each of those and just about everything else… the list is endless. However, an accomplished player will still maintain their musical character and personality regardless of the gear it is being played on. So, the picking hand attack, the vibrato, the note choices… will all be the same. Does this define tone? I don’t think it does, it defines who they are as a musician, but not their note as such.
Here is the video with Brian and Travis playing the same gear.
The interesting things that come out of this video ties up with what I was discussing above. You can hear Travis’ playing style and also Brian’s shining through, but fundamentally, their tone was changing each time they swapped amps. They keep discussing Brian’s pick attack (as he is quite a hard player on the right hand) compared to Travis’ (as he is the opposite, really quite gentle) so in that regard, the attack and bite from these amps is coming from the player, but the core tone is coming from the gear.
I think I’d like to make the case for completely and utterly banning the phrase “tone is in the fingers” and have anyone saying it severely punished. I don’t know what that punishment should be, but I’m pretty certain we can decide on a case by case basis as and when it is used as an argument!
I would like to propose it be amended to the following statement. “Musical personality and character will always shine through regardless of the gear it’s being played on”… but, you know, that’s not quite as catchy and by no means as divisive and controversial, and as I said above, what’s life without a little controversy now and then?
We asked Haley Powers, a guitar teacher and blogger from Nashville, about her experiences in the world of guitar, gear and finding your way in the male-dominated world of the music industry...
Haley says as part of her introduction to her lessons page on Facebook - "Haley Powers Music is specially designed to help women feel great about their guitar playing so that they can confidently share their music with others."
"Before I start talking about my perspective on being a female in the world of gear and electric guitar, I want to first say this is my completely biased perspective of what I have experienced. It’s definitely not every female’s opinion or experience, my personal story. So let me take you back to when I was a very beginner at electric in Jr. High (picture me- very skinny, converse high tops, and braces. Very cool obviously.)!
At my first electric group lesson, when my Dad dropped me off, I didn’t really think about the fact that there were all guys in my lesson. I had a lot of guy friends and we all listened to classic rock and loved guitar, so making friends wasn’t really an issue. Playing with all guys wasn’t weird or something I really thought about and I was always included. The guys thought it was great that I was right along with them jamming to Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix! My sister and I had also recently become obsessed with School of Rock and Spinal Tap so this was the world I lived in.
It wasn’t until about Junior year of High School that I even considered that the electric guitar world was possibly difficult for a female. That year I had just started playing at church with my Dad and most of the guys were actually in his other bands. There was a keyboard player, however, who was not a good friend and seemed to think it was weird that I played the guitar. Not only that, but I had one of those pink paisley Strats that he relentlessly teased me about it being a Hello Kitty guitar (yikes!). Playing in this kind of setting I had really tried to put on my professional shoes and something about these comments started seeping into my little high school brain despite my dad telling me that was dumb and not to worry about it. So a few years later just to avoid any sort of embarrassment, I sold that guitar to get my now ’62 Reissue Teal Stratocaster (which to be fair was a great choice!). Honestly, I hadn’t really looked back at that guitar until I saw Brad Paisley perform before I graduated high school. And guess what - he had a pink paisley Tele just like I had (but way nicer)! That experience taught me no matter what kind of stereotype or prejudice may be out there, whether that be being a girl in the world of electric guitar, an older adult being around younger cooler people, someone who doesn’t fit the current look that’s in etc., owning who you are and being thankful for the things that make you unique is your biggest strength. Someone could always make fun of you or poke holes in your validity, but if you know deep down that you like who you are, those comments can easily roll off you.
So no, I’m not one of those forward-thinking people who kept their first guitar for the memories, but I did learn a major lesson that has spurred me on throughout my life. Because I’m in a bit of a unique position, I wanted to give a few tips if you are wondering how best to support the female musicians you know. Many of the little things that have happened to me that may have seemed sexist I think we're out of genuinely really not knowing how something was coming across. As we all know, when you are doing something near and dear to your heart, little jokes or hurtful things can feel stung a bit more than they are usually intended!
1) Finding What You’re Looking For?
This is the classic area I have heard female musicians be a little dumbfounded about. The other day, in fact, my friend was telling me about a situation at a music store where the employee could not let go of the fact that she was intentionally looking at electric strings and was not in fact lost in her search for acoustic strings. Personally, most of my experiences looking at gear or guitars are 98% positive and there’s maybe the 2% out there who will explain about a product I asked about only making eye contact with my bass playing husband! Everyone has room to grow and learn and there are a ton of new things I learn about gear on a regular basis. It’s almost like the feeling of being micromanaged in a job when your boss is hovering over you and even though you know what you are doing! In this scenario, treating everyone looking at gear the same is definitely the way to go and if you want to earn extra points, saying something like “You sound awesome” or something can bring out the best!
2) Come jam
As we know, there are not as many females who play guitar backing for people in bands. I’ve thought a lot about why this may be and part of me wonders if it has to do with social norms. When you are younger this isn’t as much of an issue, but if you are married, inviting someone over of the opposite sex to hang and play music with you is a little weird. That’s why you should always marry a bass player so they can work as a nice buffer and still jam along. Kidding (but really, it’s the best!). I have heard being a “good hang” is one of the biggest factors to getting touring gigs. As people get older, friend groups can become a bit more separate with guys and girls. Music is such a great connector though that mixing it up as your next jam and inviting both genders to play (not just have a female singer!) can be really fun and a good way to include everyone. Also making sure everyone gets a chance to solo!
3) Gear chats!
Helping someone see why something is so special to you and getting them excited about it is a skill I think everyone has. When it comes to gear, some of the girls I’ve taught have started by seeing their bf’s pedal board or gear, but haven’t been invited into the experience themselves. I’m the type of person who gets really excited about things and can’t help but want other people to jump on board with that too (I’m pretty sure there have been zero interesting TED talks/ Podcasts/ cool licks I have learned about and not shared with my husband!). When my students have started playing electric, I love talking to them about pedals and seeing them light up when they see all the possibilities and sounds they have heard on a song they love and being able to so easily recreate it. Assuming they will definitely be interested in pedals and love them as much as I do is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy! I think more women would be interested in electric guitar and pedals if that was expected of them. Something that’s always baffled me too is guitar doesn’t rely on physical strength like football or something, so it really can be for everyone!
I hope a few of these tips were helpful for you if you are a guy! I know most all the guys I know are inclusive, fun to jam with, and really excited to start seeing more females playing electric guitar. There will obviously always be some people who will say offensive things or try to make something feel invalid out of insecurity (especially online!), but my sister always says, “Don’t feed the trolls!” meaning we don’t need to engage with those types of comments or people. Focusing on the people who need you, thinking the best of people, and doing what you love will always make you happiest!"
How many times have you seen that comment as part of an argument online and kinda rolled your eyes at it? Well, if you are anything like me, you stopped counting when you ran out of fingers and toes.
So, to counter that, here is a bold statement. “Who cares if the audience can hear the difference?”
OK, so let me expand on that a little. When I play live (and I’m pretty certain that this applies to everyone I play with and coming to think about it, everyone I’ve spoken too about it), a great guitar tone (or bass tone – or drum tone or whatever) is about one thing and one thing only, giving the person who is behind the instrument the opportunity to feel as comfortable as possible in order to play at their very best. The audience, generally, only cares about two things. “Is the band any good?” and “Do I like the music?”. We can do nothing about the second statement, but the first we have total control over - I doubt very much if the audience is thinking about the composite parts that result in that what they are hearing.
An integral part of any live performance is whether or not the band is any good. It’s extremely rare that a band will sound good to the audience as a whole if they sound simply awful (unless of course, their whole existence is that rough around the edges feel). I’ve seen some amazing bands in the past that have given me a terrible night because they sounded awful – and that could be the FOH mix, the individual instrument tones or anything else. I remember one night were an entire pub emptied within 3 songs because the band sounded awful. And this was the same band that went on to sell out endless world tours and go on to become one of the biggest and influential bands currently performing.
In order for the band to sound great, each person has to be at the top of their game and a lot of the time you can peel that back to ensuring that every person on the stage is comfortable and loving what they are doing and hearing. Have you ever been on stage when for some reason your gear doesn’t react the way you expect it to and it go on to ruin your night? I have, many times. That’s the ‘beauty’ of playing in bars and clubs, some rooms naturally sound amazing and some kill the sound. The key to this, for me anyway, is that in order to feel comfortable I have to be in the right ‘zone’. And that zone is all about my mental state and the relation between me and my gear. If I’m not comfortable, then I don’t play as well. My wife can spot it by the time the first song is halfway through if I’m not comfortable.
Quite often, either during a break or after the gig, people wander over to the stage area and say “You don’t need all that… etc etc” and then go on to say how good it sounds and how much they enjoy/ed my playing. This always strikes me as a little odd, surely the only thing they care about is if it sounds good. It shouldn’t matter if I have one pedal and a £50 guitar into a crappy amp, or if I have boutique level stuff from start to finish… as long as it sounds good as part of the end product. In order for it to sound good, then I have to be stood there and feel 100% comfortable and ready to melt some faces. I think this is key to this debate and a word I've used several times already in this piece – 'comfortable'. Is the player comfortable? and is the gear making them comfortable? I am fully aware that my epic board is somewhat of a comfy blanket for me, I rely on it and most of the effects on it are used once, which is a lot of money to spend on something that is only used in that way – but consider this. I am there for two reasons. Firstly, to satisfy my desire to play live and make music with my buddies, and to see the audience enjoy themselves. The one song that flies into my head at this point is “Runaway” by Del Shannon, latterly covered by Gary Allen – and the version we go is somewhere in the middle of the two. The intro to that is quite a specific tone, and it uses a one time only patch from the Mobius and Timeline (although the TimeLine is used constantly throughout the gig the Mobius only features in 4-5 other songs, 1 for vibe, 1 for tremolo and 3 or so with chorus) - does it make having a £450 pedal worthwhile? My answer is a resounding YES! On that song, as when I hit that big Am riff to start it, people jump up and start dancing. That makes me comfortable, that makes me happy and so I play better.
The main question I have to ask myself is this. Would it sound any worse to the audience if I didn’t use those patches and just got myself a crappy cheap trem pedal. Or not use those sounds at all and just use a normal tone. Well, it may well do… but the fact it’s all midi controlled so the tempo is right makes me a happy boy. There is no tap dancing, there is no tweaking of speed, it’s just there and I know that it’s going to sound killer every night (not taking into consideration if the room is awful). This means I can relax, concentrate on one of the most finger bending solos I have to do later in the song and not worry about anything not sounding the way I expect it to.
There are a lot of players out there who survive beautifully going straight in, or using cheaper pedals and everything else, but as a player I need to know what to expect when I hit that button. When I know what to expect, I relax, when I am relaxed I play better. And the only thing the audience does care about, I’ve found, is that I play to the best of my abilities every time I get up on that stage. It’s not about sounding the best because the £2K Klon has more mojo than the £150 Tumnus, it’s about only having to concentrate on the playing. For me, the Klon is excessive as I feel I don’t need it as the Tumnus does the trick for me every night, but I know many players that only feel comfortable when they have a real vintage Klon in their chain. Now, I can barely tell the difference when I play them side by side, so incorporated into a band mix I’m 100% confident I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and I would go as far as saying that they can’t either… the audience wouldn’t have a chance – but if the player is happy, and therefore playing their best because they are so happy, then for me – it’s worth every penny spent.
For reference, here is my rig and I’ve taken the liberty of adding up the total cost of it all new.
PRS Brent Mason signature.
’94 Fender MIM Strat with hand wired Seymour Duncan Antiquities
Line6 G30, TC Electronic Polytune 2 into One Control OC-10 looper that contains…. Wampler Mini Ego Compressor, Wampler Mini Tumnus, Wampler Paisley Drive Deluxe, TC Quintessence, Strymon Mobius (split into pre and post), Strymon TimeLine, TC Electronic MiniHOF, Wampler dB+… All wired up with Evidence Audio SIS/Monorail.
Amps and Speakers
Custom made 2x12” speaker cab loaded with WGS Reaper HP and WGS ET65.
Spare amp – Quilter 101 MR
Yep. That’s £7k of gear to play covers in pubs once or twice a week. But, let's face it – I could double that figure EASILY! Yes, I know, that original figure is insane. I really know it is, but it makes me happy and this is my only hobby and I know whenever I go out to make a noise I sound as good as I personally can - so in that regard, it’s worth it. All of it!
Quite often you will see a conversation on the internet - usually started by a meme - that ends up with a few people arguing that playing isn't all about the gear, it's about the player. But what happens when the gear transforms the player? Here is a short piece sent to us regarding this by a moderator of our tone group on Facebook, Andrew Gordon.
"Can a new guitar pedal really make you a better player?
If you had asked me this question two months ago I would have "No! Don’t be ridiculous!" But since finding a couple of key pedals that really work for me I appear to have levelled up in my playing. Now, is it the pedal that is making me play better or is it that I am playing more and understanding more and really starting to find myself as a player?
I think the answer is, in fact, both, but it may not have happened without that pedal.
Let me put some context to this, I play the guitar as a hobby and buying and selling gear has also been my hobby for several years. Of late I’ve finally got an interest in theory and becoming a better player than I currently am. I’ve been watching more theory videos on youtube than gear videos and really trying to implement what I am learning. I have hit a point where I feel I have a much better understanding of some of the theory and where and how I can actually use it. It appears that you really do get out what you put in and you would think at my age that this would be a no-brainer, but if I am being honest I let the gear chase get in the way of actually playing and getting better. I’ve not only seen this in myself but I have seen it some of my other “tone chaser” friends and even some in real life too! It’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important, playing.
It’s been quite a few years since I have been in a band and I am starting to feel now that it is really time to get something together not only to have fun and jam, but to keep getting better as a player and to also make my gear relevant apart from my love of it.
But how did a pedal bring on this realistic revelation?
It started with one video on youtube about one pedal and I watched it over and over and over again to point where I pinpointed the exact sound that I had been hearing in my head for the last five years or so, but I had finally heard it in gear. I have chased many different tones over the years but this one had always been what I thought was my “core” tone. A while back I found out that I am a better player on Telecaster, I don’t know exactly why or how this happened as I always thought I was a strat player and that was it. But again I was wrong. For some reason, I am more melodic, more honest and expressive player with better tone on a Tele. I ordered the pedal at my local store and waited for its release. Once I got it and plugged it in and dialled it in over a couple of days something had changed. I was playing better! I was sounding better too!
Now we all love chasing tone, I know I do but sometimes the chase is not as good as the results you can achieve. The truth is you need to chase gear to find out what makes you, you, and how you can get to the point where you are sounding and feeling your best. It can take some time to find the right gear, but you also need to put the time in getting to know how the gear works for you properly rather than just playing it for a weekend and then flipping it straight away. It’s kind of like finding your life partner, it takes time and effort and you do get what you put in. Happy chasing and finding the tone zone."
I've read this a few times and finding myself agreeing with it more the more I re-read it. The reason I relate to it personally so much is because the latest interpretation of my tone, from my gig board, has complete revitalised my playing. I use three gain stages on my board, the Tumnus and the Paisley Deluxe. I was previously using the Dual Fusion instead of the PaisleyDog, but needed some more 'grunt' so swapped it out when the PaisleyDog was released. What I found is that because the UnderDog side is more gainy, more aggressive, I was starting to dig into my guitar more and finding more inspiration when improvising with the band. Not only did this make me sound more convincing in being me, I was also setting up my rig at home to just play it more. When I do this, I found that because I relating to my tone that much more I was wanting to learn more about what I was playing... Now, I'm no slouch when it comes to music theory, but then again, Tom Quayle is one of my favourite friends so I am painfully aware that I actually know very little. The more I played, the more I was analyzing what I was playing and then looking up teaching sites to work out what I was doing... this then pushed me into new areas which pushed me into more and the cycle of learning is now at it's most prominent it's ever been. The more I enjoy my tone, the more I play. The more I play, the more I wonder how I can make myself sound more interesting. The more I make myself sound more interesting, the more I want to make myself sound even more interesting. So, as far as Andrew and I are concerned, that by way of inspiration to play, gear can and does make you a better player.
I’m a creature of habit, 100%. Borderline OCD makes me happy when things are “normal” and in a routine. It’s something I’ve noticed for many years that permeates through all of my daily life, down to food choices, what deodorant I use, all that stuff. When I go to one of our local restaurants, I’ll normally order one of the three or four different dishes I usually get. This same thing was overtly apparent after getting a Suhr a few months ago, then the PRS Silver Sky. My OCD kicks in, and when things are out of place, it’s just impossible for me to bond with instruments, pedals, amps, etc. A lot of it is expectation versus reality, then adding my desire for consistency it makes for a lot of gear flipping.
I was very fortunate to find an incredible deal several months back on a Suhr Antique heavy relic, with three Thornbuckers in it. It was an incredible sounding guitar, and the neck felt great in my hands. I had it for about two weeks, to where I was enjoying it but there just wasn’t something quite right. At the time, I had it built up in my mind that “It’s a Suhr, it has to be something wrong in my mind, these guitars are supposed to be perfect.” I played it for another couple weeks and found myself still feeling like it wasn’t quite where I wanted it. Despite my better judgment, and complete lack of experience, I watched a couple of YouTube videos, changed to my favorite strings that I use on every guitar (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky’s, I’ve been using them for over a decade now), and adjusted the truss-rod and the saddles on the bridge. Threw a set of Dunlop strap locks on there, and sure enough, that’s what it needed. It came down to it being a comfort level thing, where those strings and the security strap locks give me mentally helped complete the puzzle.
The strap lock thing is entirely for a reason, and to this day I’ll put a set of strap locks on every guitar I ever own in the future. When I was in my early to mid-twenties, I had a PRS Custom 22 in Scarlet Red. That PRS was a guitar that I had saved for over two years for, and it was my first genuinely nice guitar. I was in a hard rock band and did a lot of jumping around and carrying on, and we were practicing before a gig in a garage. We were mid-jam when I jumped in the air, and when I landed the back of the strap broke and my beloved PRS went flying and hit the concrete floor. I immediately felt like I was going to throw up. I was fortunate because it mainly took a 1’ chip of finish off down to the wood near the jack, but the back as absolutely scratched to death. I couldn’t repair the considerable chunk of finish that chipped off, but I was able to at least wax some of the scratches out of the back. No guitar to this day feels safe unless I have strap locks on it now. I soon stopped jumping around pretty permanently after that.
The string situation comes down to preference and comfort. I’m used to the tension and tone that the Regular Slinky’s (10’s) give me, and although I’ve played guitars with other strings that worked just fine, nothing quite feels like home like a set of Slinkys’. I’ve gone through the phases of trying heavier and lower gauge strings, and for me, heavier than 10’s make my carpal tunnel act up, and anything lower than 10’s feel like playing spaghetti. I’ve tried various brands, from NYXL’s, D’Addario’s, and even boutique strings, and though they all sounded good and played fine, it always comes down to a manner of familiarity and what my ears expect along with how the strings feel under my fingers. The same thing went on with my PRS Silver Sky, where I just wasn’t comfortable until I put my favorite strings on there, adjusted the truss rod how I liked it, and even adjusted the pickups down to better suit my tastes. After those small adjustments (and a set of strap locks), it immediately felt sturdier and like I was “at home.” It just proved that I’m horrendously set in my ways, sometimes to a fault. The irony is that I’ve changed “favorite picks” so many times that I can’t count on my fingers and toes (albeit most revolve around a thicker, JazzIII XL shape).
Am I weird and the only one who does this? Not sure. I guess one way to look at it is that I know what I want more-so than in years past. The same has occurred recently with pedals too. I’ve moved more OD’s and fuzzes and dirt boxes on and off my board for so long now that there were days when I had a board full of nothing but dirt, to try them all. Now, I’m down to 3 dirt pedals that have stayed relatively consistent on my board, and they’re about what you’d expect: Klone (depends on the board size as to whether it’s a mini or a large one), Tubescreamer, and a Bluesbreaker of some sort. I like them versatile enough to cover lots of ground, but not so much that they overlap a whole lot. The same goes for most of the rest of my board, and I think it’s what it means when people talk about finding their own personal tone. I still flip pedals, but nothing like I’ve done in the past. I think in that situation, getting in the comfort zone can be kind of nice (especially financially).
What is it about classic or vintage gear that just oozes mojo? In general, many of the circuits aren’t made of magic unicorn dust or rainbow farts and hen’s teeth; just electronics soldered together that culminate in a particular circuit. These parts aren’t necessarily designed to be used with music-related devices, but over the years that’s what’s been adopted by the industry and progressed even further into modern technology. So, what is “mojo,” and why does it play such a huge part in our gear selections? It dawned on me the other day as I was taking stock of my gear, looking at what I would be willing to move (for space and to have a bit of extra spending cash), and things that I immediately will not sell in any way, shape, or form. I think it comes down to mojo, which is a combination of several factors. It made me start looking at WHY I’m keeping the gear I’m keeping, and so easily “thinning the herd” so to speak on some other things.
Several of my friends and I were discussing vintage gear in a group chat, and lust for various pieces of classic gear that are essentially unreachable in our lifetime (financially). The more I thought about the cost. However, I started questioning why I would want something so freaking expensive? One part is nostalgia and kind of a hive-mind of what we grew up around. Many of the older guys we idolized in high school always lusted after vintage instruments, and I think it keeps being handed down through the generations. Again, it goes back to reflecting gear communities and the thought processes behind them (even pre-internet days). 1958 and ’59 Les Paul’s are considered the holy grails of the Gibson world and the idea of playing or owning one seems incredible. Same with an original ’57 Strat, or a ’68 Fender Paisley, or whatever you’d like to use as the defining unobtanium, magic instrument of love and lust as your example. Many were lucky enough to be around to experience those instruments when they were new, but as time goes on fewer players are around that have owned yet alone played a true vintage instrument. But that’s the thing; many people still lust for them despite having never laid their hands on one. Why is that? Well, mojo of course!
The IDEA of holding an instrument that old would feel like holding an ancient relic from civilizations long gone. I’ll admit that I don’t know a load of vintage instruments, but I’ve heard a lot about them lately. Paul Reed Smith did a live video in the U.K. when people asked why a vintage Strat was so great, and his answer was “Because those guys knew what they were doing.” It’s apparent because the designs haven’t changed much at all in over half of a century. At the same time, I’ve also seen many people saying that many of those old instruments are inconsistent and that some are magic, but some don’t click for lack of a better way to describe it. Despite the proposed inconsistency, some are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to own a piece of history. I suppose it’s about collecting anything, preserving history for future generations and all that. It’s also a very cool talking point to be able to show off that cool, now-rare gear. The same goes for pedals. The Klon Centaur is probably the most famous of all of them, and despite being a relatively simple boost and overdrive, it’s an item of lust for MANY people (and a point of contention for many more).
These pieces of gear fetch massive costs in the used market, and subsequently, many companies have tried to take the tried and true formula that players lust over and create a modern, relatively affordable (comparatively) version for the current generation that captures that nostalgia and inherent mojo. Some get excessively close in recreating the feel and response and tone of the originals, some take them to new extremes and approach the old as a springboard for creating something grounded in nostalgia, but with modern amenities. It’s the reason why we (Wampler) have two variants of klones, as well as dozens and dozens of other companies as well. It’s the same reason so many places make strat and tele-style guitars. Are the tones quantifiably different? In some cases, yes, in some cases no. There are many people on the internet that would argue that other companies than Fender make a better strat, while many believe there’s nothing like the classic. Are vintage tubescreamers from the early 1980’s completely better than the ones available today? Likely not. There may be a 5% difference or so based on part tolerances and a wider variance in manufacturing, but they’re subjective… and that percentage factors in when you’re looking at substantial differences between the costs. At that point, it’s just a personal decision as to how much that sound and difference means in monetary value. Is it worth *paying* for “mojo”? That’s up to the person making the payments!
I’ve got a few pieces of gear that are purely sentimental and will be intended to be heirlooms for my kids because they are either unique and quirky, have some form of emotional connection (such as my first MIM Strat) or completely special (gifts, etc.). In the end, it comes down to the tone and how it feels to play it for each person. For me, mojo is that smile I get when I plug into a piece of gear, and it sounds great, responds great with the rest of my rig and does EXACTLY what I’m hoping it will do. It’s the feeling of nostalgia, how playing through a piece of gear makes me feel connected to an era, or a guitar hero that I’m a massive fan of. It’s not quantifiable magic, but it hits the spot for me, where it may not do anything for anyone else. That mojo is self-driven, and I’ve bonded with pedals and guitars that were considered “budget-level,” along with not falling in love with pedals and guitars that are obscenely expensive and theoretically there was no reason NOT to love it. In the end, I can’t say that for me, mojo can necessarily be bought. It’s just the right time, the right feel, the right tone, the right look that grabs my attention when I plug in.