Designing pedals - From frustration to Fuzztration

You may have noticed we released details of our new pedal recently – a fuzz/octave called “Fuzztration”. Instead of waffling on about the origins of it, the circuit, and the tones within; I’m going to talk about the name, the look and the marketing angle of the Fuzztration as this is quite a departure for us, we are breaking our mould somewhat with it – and to be honest, it was a long and painful journey to get to this point.

This is a pedal that has been in discussion for a while and the earliest reference I have of it in my “Wampler: Pedals – Logos” folder is from July 2017. Brian had been talking about it for probably a year or so before that… so, when we say we throw stuff around for literally years before a release, this is a case in point!

In order to tell the story properly, I have to give away a little of the process. When Brian has decided on a circuit, and what controls it is going to have, he cracks on and breadboards it. Once that is done and he is happy with it the tones/response etc, he forwards all the relevant information to our chief engineer Jake Steffes to ensure his vision of tone will work in the confines a pedal. I can clearly remember Brian telling me about it and describing it as “it’s a versatile fuzz, rea thick and the octave can kinda sound like the solo tone from KWS ‘Blue on Black’ tone, as well as all the regular stuff”. With that in mind, the original concept of the pedal was to be called “Blue on Black”.

As soon as the pedal has been allocated its place in the release schedule; Brian, Alex and I started on the long a tortuous process of naming the thing. Avi, head of production and distribution, had a stock of matte black powder so it was decided really quickly that it would be that colour, because ‘cool’. 

Jake forwarded me the controls and it was clear it was going to be “deluxe” sized so I did what I always do, take a look at the market and see what’s cool and what isn’t. One of my favourite dirt pedal concepts is Jamie’s exquisite Acapulco Gold with the massive ‘gain’ knob. So, I decided early on a large knob controlling the clipping would look great. Other than that, it was pretty straightforward. 2 stomps, 4 other knobs, 2 switches, power and in/out jacks. I quickly spoke with Jake about putting a big knob for the clipping, and he said it would be cool, so… I wanted it on the top right with the other controls on a nice shallow W formation to the left. The first thing I had to do was to find a larger knob that would still look like a Wampler and fortunately for me, Alex told me that the knobs on the Bravado were the same as our pedal ones, just bigger. So I made him measure one... With these measurements confirmed, Jake laid it out and we quickly had the basic layout in the bag. Jake nailed this process and I tip my hat in his general direction. I try to change things around a little now and then so I requested a blue and green LED because I’m kinda bored of red and blue and I knew that this was coming on the Paisley Deluxe (that was still months out from being released) and we’ve used it many times before. This is always a gamble, as we didn’t know what the rest of the pedal is going to look like yet.

Once Jake has laid it out, he sends me the ‘drill pattern’ and I can transfer it to the templates I have in photoshop and start to work out the look/name. These are pictures from Aug 9th 2017, three concepts for the Wampler “Blue On Black” – Only one was ever printed, and it looked… well… crap.




From here, must have been April ’18 (it was decided a long time ago it would be released some time forward so it went on the back burner) I was distracted and inspired by a piece of music by my favourite composer, Camille Saint-Saëns - Danse Macabre. I simply LOVE this piece of music, it’s dark and deliciously spooky which I thought would be amazing for a fuzz pedal. I went as far as a couple of mock ups for it, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work. I would have loved to have the first demo recorded to be that piece of music on a Fuzz/Octave though… I might do it one day, just for the lololz.



The name was abandoned. From there, I thought of Valkyrie, for two reasons. Lisa and I had just watched “Vikings” on Amazon and I’m a long-time player of the game Clash of Clans which has Valks in it. I actually really liked this, as it was dark and nasty, aggressive and cool. Two concepts were quickly done, and the one I liked (on the right) was drawn by an extremely talented artist from Seattle called Stacy LeFevre – we couldn’t agree on terms so the concept, name and design, were put to rest.

So, we are back to the drawing board once again. At this point, myself, Brian, Alex and my partner in designcrime – Richard Oliver were going quite insane. Frustration levels were reached and breached and there would be literally weeks between conversations. Names did go back and forward, but we were so annoyed with it we distracted ourselves with other releases that were more pressing. I love working with Richard as he understands me (bonus) and has become a great friend during this time. In fact, it was Richard who nailed the artwork for the Pantheon (which was named by Matt Kimes). After the Valkyrie idea had been shelved, Richard came up with a ‘big list o’ fuzz names’ – some great, some silly…. Even at one point suggesting “Chewbacca; and have the octave switch called ‘Laugh it up Fuzz Ball’, it’ll be funny if not really really litigious and not in a good kind of way.” 

Another name came forward at this point, I think from our good friend Frank Falbo, and we still like it even though it’s been decided not to be used for this pedal. So, I’m not going to talk about it here! I have it in mind for a couple of pedals down the line… time will tell.

At this point we were extremely frustrated with it. We’d all had enough. No one dared mention it for a while, apart from Brian who would remind us it needed to be done. We are now in about July or so. Texts were coming and going because it was getting to the point where we couldn’t avoid this any longer…

Whilst on holiday in Tenerife, Richard got a text from Brian saying we are still struggling for the name for the fuzz, and everyone felt their creative well for this name had run a bit dry… so, he followed Marketing 101 and asked the nearest young person for help. This happened to be his daughter, Leila, who was 15 at the time and we’ve been told has impeccable musical taste (despite hating on Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden which in my book is a travesty and I blame that squarely on the parents). She came up with a couple that were funny, then randomly said “Fuzztration”. He initially dismissed it but then thought - wait - that's EXACTLY the feeling we get from naming this pedal… That day, I received this in messenger from Richard:

I instantly copied and pasted his message and text it to Brian and Alex and we all thought that it was a killer name. The next hurdle was the graphic and the logo. Richard asked what I thought and said something along the lines of “Some kind of artsy vision of someone who’s screaming, or got their head in their hands or something, I just need to find the thing that triggers it in my head”. I really wanted a screaming face because Edvard Munch is a genius and that’s one of the most symbolic pictures of all time, also it perfectly fitted the process of getting here. And then there’s Pink Floyd… The Wall. The symbolism of both are iconic.

Here is the process Richard and I went through – I resisted the scream originally, as we were at the time keeping our designs simpler.

So, images 1-4 are me getting annoyed and it not working, 5 is me working towards the font to use with the new name, 6 is Richard’s concept for the screaming man I had previously mentioned (that was a strong contender) and then through my thought process of the face and the colour scheme. I wanted to put a heart beat on it as the more frustrated I got, the more my heart started to pound… The face is a mixture of my face from this picture (taken August 29) and one from a free site on the internet mashed up and put together with elements of both - you’ll have to work out which bits are me and which bits aren’t.

Here are the print tests. As you can see, the eyes didn’t work, nor did Richard’s face, but my screamer did. Once we had decided on the knob colour, on we went...



As this pedal is hot on the heels of one of our most successful releases ever, I knew that we had to go big on the teasing. So, if you scroll back through our social media for the last month or so, you will see that fuzzes are mentioned a lot more. Brian starts to talk about fuzzes on the podcast, he even mentioned this one a few times. I started to tease the graphic style and on Oct 31st I released this graphic for the Halloween moment of silliness that contained literally hundreds of lines of text in the back ground, I talk about everything in there... there are song lyrics, undying declarations of love for my wife and kids, my desire for a holiday, a new amp… so many things – including a little troll moment for one of our customers, Jeff. Within the lines of text were also clear and large hints about this next pedal release, I’m quite delighted and annoyed that literally NO ONE zoomed in to check.

So, here it is, the Fuzztration and that was the cliff notes version of how it came to be called this. There is quite a lot missing, because I don’t have records of it all as much of it was deleted in several fits of rage along the way. A lot of people have been asking us for a LONG time that we needed to release something kinda muff like, but make it better. Based on the work we did on the Tumnus and Pantheon, I was very confident that Brian can take the concept of a classic circuit, and make it infinitely better. And he did.

 

Frustration over, Fuzztration lives.

 

Chasing the tone of Billy Duffy - Love Removal Machine

Was extremely excited to hear Brian’s latest chasing tone song choice last week, as it was featuring one of my favourite bands from the 80’s, and one that I consider to be HUGELY underrated… The Cult.

The Cult signified a massive moment for me growing up, as they introduced me to the concept of taking a song, a small but perfectly formed one, and exploding it into a huge extended remix – or what us people of a certain age call “A 12” remix”. From what I can remember, they didn’t record anything different, just took the composite parts of the original and cut them all together and mixed them up to make what I can only imagine be the perfect version of the song to hear live! I remember the thing that really grabbed me was the different textures of the guitars, tones, riffs, and hooks that went in to make a 4-minute hit and be able to bring it out to a 6-minute epic. Anyway, enough of that, here it is…



So, this was all about 1985 or so, when I was deep into Iron Maiden and all that stuff, so it was a departure for me to concentrate on a three chord band who were all about the hooks. In 1987 they followed up the massively successful “Love” album (that featured ‘Rain’ and “She Sells Sanctuary”) with “Electric” that took them one stage further, more hits on both sides of the Atlantic and them fairly well cemented into history. On this album was the track “Love Removal Machine” that was a pretty decent smash the dashboard, roof down, foot down type of track… and it’s this one that Brian gives the full breakdown treatment to. It was classic Cult of this era: open, riff-laden and more hooks than a tackle shop. Although for me, on a personal Love remains the pinnacle of the Cult’s output (you know, it’s that time and place thing), “Electric” is by far a better album in terms of hits and just great rock and roll songs. 

So, Billy’s gear on this. What do we know? Although Billy is well known for using a Gretsch (and now has a signature with them that is based on a ’75 Baldwin era White Falcon) this album was ultimately revolving around Les Paul’s, in the words of Billy himself it was “...purity and method were the keys to this recording... so it all boiled down to the right amp and cab with correct mike(s) and the Les Paul... no pedals used at all on the session apart from a wah were obvious on certain tracks...” which to me makes sense as the low ends are WAY too tight to be a hollow body, it’s tighter and more under control. 

The album was produced by Rick Ruben (this was the first album he had recorded with a full band in a studio) after the band was not feeling the ‘first draft’ of the album (due to be called ‘Peace’) with the producer of the Love album, Steve Brown. Rick agreed to remix the album providing they could re-record “Love Removal Machine”. Rick stripped Billy back and made Ian more aggressive vocally. At the time, in the studio, Rick was listening to a lot of AC/DC, in particular “Back In Black”, so there is an element of guitar driven rock and roll to it, hence the reduction in the signature swirly stuff that we all fell in love with on “Love”.

What do I hear in this track? Well, we already know that Billy loved his Marshalls, and this just screams a Marshall that is clipping beautifully. Pushed hard by a Les Paul and not a trace of effects, so no tubescreamer’s or anything else (although I think that solo tone has something happening). Really puts me in mind of the players that came before, and some of Billy’s heroes in particular Malcolm Young, Mick Ronson, and Paul Kossoff. There is a lot of room in the tone, so not only is it close mic’ed but some serious room mic happening. The whole thing with the Electric album compared to Love was that it was more rock and roll, more of that classic 70’s thing happening… Which, for me, is why it’s never going to be quite as classic as Love was… I mean, listen to the intro of “She Sells Sanctuary”… JC120 with the inbuilt stereo chorus, flanger, phaser, two delays, compression, and reverb… just amazing and most certainly groundbreaking. In fact, if you are not really that familiar with The Cult, start with Electric and then once you’ve digested it all, hit up Love and then marvel at 1985 in all its glory!

 

 

 

 

 

Brent Mason plays other guitars shocker - you won't believe what happened next!!

 

Yep, that's clickbait. But I only use clickbait when whatever drove me to write a piece is somewhat silly.

Had one of those moments on Facebook a couple of weeks ago that was most definitely a moment of disbelief. I think it was the first one in a long time that I couldn’t understand what I was reading, so… you know me… thought I’d put this out there in the vain hope of correcting a misconception. 

It all started with this picture...

...which as you can see is long time Wampler signature artist Brent Mason in the studio playing a rather nice looking white Gibson SG. I fully expect you to all know who Brent is, but in case you don’t, let’s just say this… Brent has been one of, if not THE, first call session musicians on the Nashville studio scene for over 30 years for guitar. In a nutshell - Brent is one of the most recorded guitarists in history. As well as being a Grammy Award-winning artist he is also a 14 time winner of the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Guitarist of the Year Award and a 2-time winner of the CMA Award Musician of the Year (being nominated every year since 1991). In 2011 he was inducted into the Thumbpickers Hall of Fame. He has played on well over a thousand albums and shows no sign of letting up yet, in fact, click here to see his list of credits on Allmusic (although it does have to be said, this list is woefully incomplete… About 6 years ago many record labels stopped putting the musicians who played on albums on the sleeves, and that would appear to be where AllMusic get their credits from, so a lot of the more recent work is uncredited. When you consider the last 3 George Strait albums and the most recent Blake Shelton, of which Brent recorded for and not listed on AllMusic, this becomes a glaring omission. I do believe that AllMusic tends to only note music recorded and released in the US so stuff outside is also missing… it also only shows music that has been released, so all the demos are not on there, songs that didn’t make the album or released on Indie labels… So, by my estimations, take the AllMusic list of credits and at least double it to get an idea of how many recordings Brent has made over the years) – now (rant over about AllMusic) if you have the patience to go down that list all the way back to 1985 then props to you, but in case you don’t, here is what you will see. He has played on a lot of country music over the years. And I mean a LOT. I’m not wrong if I were to say ‘He’s just about played with everyone”. However, if you look closely, you’ll also notice that he’s played on a lot of things that aren’t country as well. In fact, if you don’t know about the other side of Brent, I strongly suggest you check out the album he recorded and self released with his brother Randy in 2006, “Smokin’ Section”. His knowledge and vocabulary in jazz and western swing is his strength (in my opinion), which often surprises people as they think “He’s a country guy”… which of course he is, but as a wider part of the puzzle of his playing.

I get what you are thinking now… Jason, why are you writing this piece? Well, the thing that shocked me was the number of people on the thread (that went with that picture) saying things like ‘The SG threw me for a second’, 'why are you playing an SG', 'what happened to your tele' and comments similar to that.

I’m in the VERY lucky position of knowing Brent (in fact, it was getting to know Brent about 10 years ago that ended up with me working for Brian), so I got into a little bit of a conversation about this with him as I was staggered by it, I thought everyone knew that he played other guitars. I mean, we ALL know that THE highly modified Grey ’68 Tele is his number one, but you know… a telecaster only works on the songs that a telecaster works on. What happens when he needs something that requires an LP, an SG, a PRS, a Strat, an ES335? Well, this is what happens. Brent puts down the Tele and picks up his LP, his SG, his Strat and so on… you see, he’s got a LOT of guitars at his disposal. You don’t get to where he is musically and reputationally without having the right tools for the job. I look at it this way, Brent is an artist (let’s say for the purpose of this comparison a painter). If Brent was going to paint a picture would he only use one brush? Nope. He’d use what he needs to get the job done. He may have a favourite brush that he likes to use, but you know, other brushes will be used to create the perfect picture. 

One of the best things I’ve seen said about Brent over the years I’m been an avid fan is the description that he is a musical chameleon - he is able to switch between many many styles at the drop of a hat, instantly camouflaging himself into his surroundings. This is why he is in such demand, which is why he has to have so many guitars at his disposal… Here is a snapshot of the guitars that Brent uses in the studio

  • Fender ’68 Telecaster, modified by Joe Glaser – probably the guitar people most associate with him, because… well, you know, it’s legendary. Seymour Duncan pickups… all pretty stock apart from the SD ST2 in the middle (that only has half the stack wired that he brings in via that third pot, a ‘blend’ pot). Mini Gibson HB in the neck and Glaser B bender.
  • Fender Cream Tele, with Glaser B Bender.         
  • Several PRS “Brent Mason” signature models
  • Gibson ’71 Les Paul gold top, with mini HB
  • White Gibson 1972 SG
  • PRS Mike Mushok Baritone (tuned to down to B)
  • Whitfill Turquoise Baritone
  • 1998 Red Gretsch 6120 Duane Eddy model, with Bigsby
  • PRS 12 string
  • Fender ’65, stock – survived the flood of Nashville 2010 and was bought back to life by Glaser.
  • Gibson 1968 335 (also survived the flood and Brent is on record in saying that it sounds better now than it did before the flood after going through Glaser’s workshop).
  • Blue Ridge 371 Parlor Acoustic
  • 2011 Buddy Holly Tribute J45, made for Brent by Daniel Roberts
  • 2016 Gretsch Resonator Acoustic
  • 1986 Alverez gut string 

I guess the reason I’m writing this is that, well, Brent is one of my favourite players to have ever walked this earth, so any excuse to write about him is good with me. Also, to act as a stark reminder that just because a player is famous for using one guitar, it won’t be their only one. The great thing about being a musician is all the gear we get to play with, all the time, and that applies to the players who achieve legend status as much as it does to a humble player like me.

I’d like to thank Brent and Julie Mason for indulging me, once again (they have been doing this for years now and I’m eternally grateful), and providing me with the info that completed this piece.

 

The Weekend Jam Excursion

This past weekend was a bit of an anomaly for me. My wife was working two 12-hour shifts at the hospital, and my mother-in-law was keeping our two kids on Saturday, so I had a day pretty much to myself. Of course, there’s always something to do around the house like laundry, dishes, vacuuming, etc. but I decided to take the day and have a bit of fun. I loaded my Strat, Pantheon and vintage Twin head up and hit the road, off to visit a great friend of mine who lives two hours away. I had to get stuff done that day and couldn’t shuck everything I was doing, so I left the house at 6:30am and drove in the cold, wet rain up to the coast and proceeded to have a great time. Roxy and I have been Facebook friends for several years, and we’ve also traded and sold gear to the point it’s almost comical. I swear he’s got half of the stuff I’ve ever sold, and some of the gear I’ve even bought back from him and inevitably sold back. We jammed for about two hours and had an awesome time just hanging out and talking gear. He got to try my original ’68 Twin, and I got to try some of the amps he’d mentioned in our conversations (including a hand-built 20w from Bruce Egnater, his home-built amp, and one of the coolest little amps I’ve ever played in my life (more on that in a second). We messed with some pedals (including our Black Friday release) and just had a blast. It was great catching up, and it made me realize several things about myself and my gear choices.

First things first, I’ll discuss that amp I was talking about above. This was a 1-watt Marshall head and cab with a .25 watt switch on the back called the Offset. To be completely honest I’ve always sort of written off sub-20 watt amps as not being something that would ever tickle my fancy. I play into a clean platform almost exclusively, so the idea of such a low headroom amp seemed like a waste of time. I will be the first to admit that it was a stupid idea and that they are incredible. I plugged straight in and for only 1 watt and a single 10” speaker, it sounded MASSIVE. I was a bit shaken to my core because of it and I’ve pretty much been thinking about that amp constantly since then. I’m trying to work out a deal, as it’s a limited-edition amp and I WANT IT SO BAD. GAS hasn’t been quite this furious in a long time. It’s got extremely simple controls: Volume (Labeled Loudness) and Tone, then the Hi and Lo setting for the power scaling. That’s it. No frills. No FX loop, no drastic EQ changes. Simple and to the point. I REALLY liked it.

Enough about that epic little amp, onto more self-reflection and epiphanies (lol). Normally I’m one to pack up a big board and maybe bring a couple of guitars to a jam. Variety is the spice of life and all. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb and leaving my comfort zone by just taking a single pedal and a Strat that I’d only recently just modified with upgraded pickups and hadn’t taken it out for a jam yet. There was no real reason to worry, as it’s an American Pro strat that I had a guard wired-up from David Maue from Tonal Concept Pickups, where he had an original set of John Mayer Big Dippers that were wired in the neck and middle, and one of his custom PAF’s in the bridge. He put a push/pull pot in the bridge tone control to split the coil in the humbucker, and the other tone control allows me to use all 3 pickups together. As I said before, the only pedal I took was a Pantheon with a fresh 9v battery, and a TC Electronic headstock tuner for good measure. The greatest feeling was plugging into each amp and feeling confident in what I was doing. Admittedly my playing wasn’t perfect as I rarely get to practice much anymore (life, you know how it is), but overall there wasn’t a tone I felt I couldn’t achieve with that setup. Being totally honest it would have to be the fingers and the mind behind it to make that combo sound bad, but it was nice not having to hide behind a board like I’ve used as a safety net for so long. It did, however, dawn on me that with my lack of practice came the lack of remembering how to play most of the songs I used to know how to play. I’ve spent so much time noodling and learning riffs and just messing around that it was a bit disconcerting. Good thing is I know exactly what to work on, as I do want to get back to being able to play some covers like I used to. The old adage of “If you don’t use it, you lose it” was abundantly clear.

I guess the biggest thing I can take from all of this is that I’m thankful to have close friends who can talk gear, inspire GAS, and allow me to just be myself and play. It was nice having the guitar I had schemed over for so long and mess with to be just right turned out exactly how I wanted. That’s the first guitar where I sat down at the end of the day and had absolutely nothing to find wrong with it or a desire for it to do more. In the end, I will say that a lot of the tone comes from the hands, but having the right tools to translate what you’re putting out helps quite a bit and inspires confidence as well.

Welcome Guitar Players! Come on in! Everyone is welcome!

It's story time.

Hello, my name is "Us" and I am ‘somewhere’. It’s very noisy and there are a lot of people I know, along with some that I don’t, all around me. I feel quite light-headed, it’s like some kind of intense sensory overload being here. As I look around, I notice that in front of me are a large set of double doors set into a wall, kind of like the famous gates of Jurassic Park.  The walls are too high for me to see over them, but, short enough for me to see that behind them is a large open park type place with a few buildings rising up.

Over the doors, written in huge letters, it says, “Welcome Guitar Players!” Obviously, I enter. In the back of my mind, I seem to understand that I can enter this place because of something I have previously signed up for, something that gives me access to the other area. However, this was a LONG time ago and I vaguely remember that the personal information I used to gain access was really basic and was in no way cross-checked or verified.

The first impression I have, once inside, is that it is quite exciting. It is a lot more peaceful than outside and it feels comfy, it’s the kind of place I would like to hang out...

All around are small gatherings of people talking to each other. I am instantly drawn to a crowd of people looking at someone’s new piece of gear. As I walk up, giving the gear more than a cursory look, I hear various people saying “Congrats” and “Nice one!”… but there are also a small amount shadowy figures lurking around them saying things like “Should have got this instead” or “it would have been better if…”… these conversations are happening all over the place, all with their own set of shadowy figures. I don’t think the shadowy figures are here for the same reason I am, at least in part, maybe they are here for another reason as well.

As I walk around I see a lot of friends. Some of them I know well, but in a strange way, I get the impression I’ve never actually met them before. It’s like I don’t really know them, but at the same time, I kind of do. It is amazing to see each and every one of them and it makes me feel great if not sometimes a little awkward.

I can see some old guard musical heroes who I can actually go and talk to, but they look like they might be borderline grumpy, so I just say hello and tell them I’m a fan. I sometimes try to draw a commonality with them via a shared experience of their music before I carry on, but only if I can manage to catch their eye of course. There are new musical heroes who are casually talking to everyone, lots of up and coming players attracting a lot of attention and loads of just normal players - players just like me, walking freely between them.  It would appear, upon closer inspection, that a lot of these normal players seem to think they belong in the other categories. Some have even made their own nametags declaring this! 

Some of the players are excitedly playing people music, sometimes their own, sometimes their version of famous songs. Some are just listening to the music that is readily available elsewhere. Available outside. Available outside outside. On the first impression, it appears that a lot of people are being introduced to music they have not heard before. This is great! But, then again, when I look a little closer, I notice that some of them are literally holding people close to the speakers and shouting “LISTEN TO THIS” and not letting go. Some of them are repeatedly asking if I want to buy a t-shirt, some of them are talking about anything other than guitar gear in the vain hope that other people are listening...

I pause now and then to take in the people who are standing on tall soapboxes, shouting at random people about almost anything. They have a few people close to them, hanging on to every word they say and just blindly agreeing with everything. Those who have the audacity to not actually be listening to them, or those who dare to offer a different point of view, are treated with nothing short of the utmost disdain. Once again, I notice that the shadowy figures are literally everywhere, they seem to like to be wherever there is an element of chaos.

Around the perimeters, there are countless market stalls – some small, some big, and some that are huge. They vary from the ones that have one or two people working on them, desperately trying to keep up with the people who visit, to the ones that appear to have an endless amount of resources and people to respond to the random questions that are being asked. Some are provoking conversations in the hope of catching the attention of the casual passerby while some are tempting people with shiny new gear. At almost every stall there appear to be people who think they are straight up comedians – while some of them are hilarious, a lot of them are very ‘niche’ at best.

Some of these stalls look just like guitar stores and others appear to be set up by gear manufacturers, many are a mixture of both. A lot of them are really colorful, some with hilarious posters hanging on the walls (that seem to change quite often) and there are a lot of people playing the products… A really strange thing I notice is that it’s the same people playing at almost every stall simultaneously. It’s all really weird. There are a lot of people approaching these stalls, but most don’t stay for very long. A lot of the people working the various stalls seem to know each other. Some seem to be legit friends but some appear to be friendly to each other’s faces while being angry and bitter behind each other’s backs. There are a lot of stalls that look the same – similar looking products, similar advertising, similar silly jokes. It’s hard to see which of the stalls was there first so I don’t know who is being original. The most intriguing thing I can see is that some of the stalls appear to be in open warfare with the others. It’s funny watching people openly poaching people from other stalls to bring them to their own.

Scattered around just about everywhere there are, what appear to be, large meetings of people who are talking as if there are old friends. These meetings seem to be named as well, possibly to grab the attention of the people walking around. They all look as if they are having the best time, comparing gear, ideas, music and pretty much anything else you can think of. 

As before, there are shadowy figures who jump in to say something controversial before ducking out again… I manage to watch one shadowy figure flit between many of these meetings, start a problem at each one, quickly leave and then do the same thing again and again at other meetings. The shadowy figures are mostly ignored but sometimes they are challenged and, in some cases, quite a violent verbal altercation takes place. Although I can’t identify them at all, I glimpse a look at some of their faces and they do seem to be having the best time imaginable. 

Now and then there are what appear to be closed meetings, held within a contained area (the buildings I saw from outside), you can’t see or hear anything that happens within until you are permitted entrance. You have to formally request to go into a lot of these, sometimes it looks easy, some of them have rules posted on the doors and in some, you even have to answer a specified set of questions to gain admittance. The rules of these ‘meeting places’ are absolute and the rules of outside do not apply. In fact, the rules published are the only ones that are in any way policed, although it would appear a lot of people think that the rules of the outside should take precedent. 

These meetings are sometimes very busy, sometimes not. Some are just like minded people hanging out but some appear to be sponsored by one of the market stalls around the outside. I go into a couple and mostly they are great. Sometimes, the people inside get very rowdy, acting up, just blatantly going against the rules. These people are usually thrown out, or somehow have their volume turned off for a specific amount of time. It would appear that when people are removed from these places they often get extremely angry and go to other places, (similar to the ones they were in) and straight up insult the people from the other meetings. Once outside the meetings they have just been expelled from, they form into the shadowy figures I have seen running around.

I spend what feels like hours in here, listening, watching and looking at all the people. I’ve really learned a lot in my time here! Once I have really had enough, (it is now excruciatingly loud and overbearing) I can see that a lot of people are angry and I can, and cannot, quite understand why. All around there appear to be people who are thoroughly miserable and can’t find the exit, but at the same time don’t appear to want to find it either. I decide to leave and fortunately find the way out and it’s by the very same set of doors I came in by. As I walk towards the doors, with the noise of everything and everyone ringing in my ears, I look up and notice the sign above them. On the on the back of the sign that welcomed me through the doors is written: “Thank you for visiting the Guitar Community on Facebook, we’ll see you in about 10 minutes (or less, I expect)”. 

As I walk away, the doors shut behind me. But it’s even louder out here and everything is chaotic so I look over my shoulder. I look at the doors. I focus on the sign above them. I listen to the delightfully busy murmur from the other side and decide right then to turn around and go straight back in.

The first impression I have, once inside, is that it is quite exciting. It is a lot more peaceful than outside and it feels comfy, it’s the kind of place I would like to hang out... All around are small gatherings of people talking to each other. I am instantly drawn to a crowd of people looking at someone’s new piece of gear. As I walk up, giving the gear more than a cursory look, I hear various people saying “Congrats” and “Nice one!”…

 

My back demanded I downsize my rig

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!

 

 

The Pantheon and associated pedals...

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.

BluesBreaker schematic

Next up, the JHS Morning Glory. The cornerstone of virtually every P&W board I’ve ever seen.

Morning Glory schematic

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.

KoT 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.

BluesBreaker
The original = noninverted opamp, through some EQ stuff, into an inverting opamp, into fixed/set presence control and out again.

Morning Glory
Increased quality of parts, has increased output and presence switch. In terms of the circuit, it’s louder and more versatile.

KoT
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.

Pantheon
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.

What do we have in conclusion… well, each offers something different in terms of user interface and options. They all sound pretty similar and you can make each sound like the other if you are that way inclined… it’s all down to, I think, this. Which one turns you on the most for whatever reason. All are built in the US, all have increased quality of parts, all are more stable than the original, all have increased outputs… but in terms of originality and ‘mojo’… well… the evidence shows you otherwise – the last original BluesBreaker circuit came out in 1991!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originals v Covers: Play for the Audience?

I was doing my typical boredom-induced zombie scrolling deal on Facebook the other day and happened upon a Woody Harrelson meme that said, “When people who only play “original music” crap on my cover band” and has Woody drying his eyes with money. It made me laugh, but it also made me think of another post I saw a while back that argued that cover bands aren’t “local music.” Both of these polarizing posts kind made me question where musicians place their value in their music, and I just wanted to talk through some of the points here (especially after having a discussion with a friend who has very different opinions than mine).

I’ll start from my end because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I love writing music and creating riffs and songs, but at the basis of my playing, I just enjoy playing covers. They’re fun, they get people up and moving because they’re identifiable and it’s a relatively straightforward thing that you can build from with your own unique flourishes should you choose to or play it exactly like the records...the choice is up to the player. For me, I like playing it note for note with the recording. It’s equal parts nostalgia and the desire for perfectionism is a world that lacks it completely. My OCD makes me want to nail each note exactly how the pros did it, and when I finally accomplish it then I feel successful. That’s been a driving force and where the bar has been set for myself since I started playing. I’ve always played covers because that’s actually how I’ve learned a lot of theory is piecing it together how the pros do it, because I don’t have the focus to sit down and practice scales…I never was a “studier.” When I did learn scales, it turned me into a robot because of that cushy feeling of false safety; if I stayed in the box I knew I couldn’t play a dreaded wrong note. But, it led my lead-work to be…scaley? No emotion, just notes in the scale. So, I went back to piecing theory together from songs, and that’s how I’ve personally connected the dots. It can be considered derivative if you broke it down, but it works for me and makes me happy and I try to play to the song and the band as much as trying to stand out.

My buddy is from the opposite line of thought. He gets ultimate enjoyment from writing songs and riffs. His fulfilment comes when he creates a lead lick or catchy rhythm part that he wouldn’t mind hearing again. He knows a few songs, but 95% of the time he chooses to create something in a jam than to cover a song, it’s just not interesting to him. He’s very into unique tones and doesn’t want to sound like Angus Young or EVH or any of the classics. He wants to create his own sound and for lack of a better description, to leave his own mark on the world. It’s something that I never wrapped my head around as a teenager as we’d go to jams and he’d want to make something up instead of playing a known song (to him that was boring). As we got older we both realized that a lot of what’s so great about guitar is the ability to adapt, so we’ve made stuff work.

Fundamentally, going back to the meme’s as referencing (welcome to citation in 2018), who is wrong and who is right? The answer? Both are right and wrong. I know, that sounds like a cop-out but hear me out. There’s playing music for fun, and then there’s playing music to earn money (surplus income, or sole income if you’re a full-time musician). You’ve taken a lot of time to hone your craft, and exposure bucks don’t pay the rent, unfortunately. So, fair compensation for the service you’re providing is what’s needed. To that end, a musician must be willing to adapt to what the customer is expecting. Whether that’s a bar gig trying to help sell some food and beer for the venue, or whatever scenario arises. In general, however, people are looking for identifiable songs. I’ve had several friends who have gone to bars to find out the band was playing nothing but originals, and they ended up leaving. It’s just the society we live in. Everyone has to start somewhere, and many of the famous acts played covers until they got their foot in the door and added in their own material along the way. I guess my point is that there can’t be a polarizing thought-process when it comes to music. Being part of a community means helping it grow, and admittedly it’s something that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your own integrity to achieve either. My point is, even the biggest stars in music STILL play covers, because there’s something identifiable and nostalgic about hearing those notes, and sort of tying those nostalgic feelings to the personality of the artist covering them…sort of a way of the person covering the songs to express a bit of who they are and what they love.

 In the end, what is the point of cutting down another musician? It doesn’t matter if you’re in a cover band or an original band in the end. If you’re doing what you love, screw it, it doesn’t matter what people think. I’ve seen discussions of covers being derivative, but that’s something that is defined by each player. 

Playing music is the greatest, and surely, that should be enough?!

 

Is tone all in the fingers? Does Satriani sound the same with cheap gear?

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?

 

 

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