Barnes and Noble, Making Your Instrument Fit the Sound, & and the Lustrous Ambience of Michael Brook

My wife and I were at Barnes and Noble the other night looking for cd’s. (As a quick side note, when was the last time you were at Barnes and Noble and someone didn’t explain to you how to demo the cd’s there? Seriously, every time I go, someone tells me how to scan the barcode, put the headphones on–first the left ear, now the right–no matter how much I protest that my intellect is capable of the task. But, on with the story….) I had this gift card there, and we could get books or films, but I like music. Probably obsessively, but then that’s completely the point of this blog site. I already decided on the new one by The Editors because sweet mercy The Editors are good. Jamianne and I went with our friends Tim and Kristen to their show down in San Diego last month and it was spectacular. (Louis XIV also played at that show….which wasn’t quite as spectacular….at all…..but, I’ll save that for another blog.) So now we need one more cd because Barnes and Noble specifically makes their gift cards so that they will never break up evenly. Ever. If you buy one thing, you have like $6.36 on the gift card that now you can never use because nothing but Techno remix of Top Gun’s Award-winning score costs $6.36. But if you buy two items, then you have to pay some of your own money above and beyond the gift card. It’s really quite genius. So we’re looking through all the cd’s so we don’t have wasted money left on the gift card, and I’m listening to: 

–Interpol…good, but I don’t think the melodies are good enough to interest me after a couple days; 
–High Kings…I love it, but Jamianne says it sounds a bit too polished; 
–Muse…fantastic, but I’ve already bought most of the album on itunes; 
–Radiohead…quite possibly the best band ever, but they can never seem to get over the bridge of their own wierdness in my opinion; 
–Drive by Truckers…seems like the only good song is the one I already ituned; 
–VHS or Beta…Jamianne loves them, and I do, too, but I saw some live clips of them online and they weren’t that impressive…I’m a big buyer-into-er (?) of how a band sounds live. It makes a big difference to me for some reason. 

So we end up with The Editors and either VHS or Beta or Tori Amos. Tori Amos is great. Nothing about her songs ever jumps out at you, but they just sound awesome in a very understated way. Soundscapey. 

And then on a whim, I catch the new Michael Brook album sitting all by itself. Now, I’m a big Michael Brook fan…he did some of the score to Heat, and he invented the guitar sound that Edge uses on With or Without You. Ya, I know, it always comes back to U2 for me somehow. But he doesn’t put out many albums on his own. So anyway, I scan the little barcode deal and put the headphones on, just as the Barnes and Noble employee instructed me how to do. And my ears are served with such delight. Jamianne calls his style ‘urban-ambient’. Like, picture driving through downtown LA at night, with the fog cover rolling in, blurring all the city lights reflecting off your windshield. That’s the new Michael Brook album. And there was no contest after that. Editors and Michael Brook.


Michael Brook is a guitarist by trade, but it’s his musical instincts when it comes to composition that really draws me to his music. He and the keyboardist (James Hood) think in terms of the song as a whole and exactly what is reaching the audience’s ear. And I appreciate that. I’m not sure we do it in church enough or in any of our musical projects. Interesting experiment: take your worship team and have everyone sit in a group and listen to a recording of the previous week’s service. Nine if not your full ten musicians will be hearing their own part. It’s just simply human (and musician) nature. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it; it’s just how it is. You’ll notice because of comments like: 

“The piano needs to be louder.” 
“What mic are we using on the kick?” 
“Is that me singing that harmony or you?” 

And the really humble ones will say wonderfully humble things. (I’m unfortunately not one of these people.) But it’s still about their instrument nonetheless:

“I think my bass needs to be lower in the house.”
“Or, yikes I hit a wrong voicing on that string pad.”

And notice that I haven’t even hit us guitarists yet. We’re usually not even concerned with how we’re playing, or how many people heard us, or if we’re even in the mix at all. We say things like:

“Wow, that new chip in my overdrive pedal really makes it suck tone when bypassed.”
“My preamp gain has a mid-hump; I should try changing out the V2 position tube.”
“Does anyone else think I lost some clean headroom when I changed out my grill cloth?”

Meanwhile everyone’s looking at us, like, it’s no wonder he hits the wrong chords all the time, he’s not even paying attention to what song we’re playing.

But it’s amazing because we all hear our own instrument, not the music as a whole. And I do it probably more than most….and I am pretty positive that that new grill cloth did change my tone. 🙂 But I can gaurantee you that 95% (if not more) of the congregation or audience or whatever you want to call them, can’t pick out your instrument. Most of them can’t even differentiate between the kick drum and the bass guitar. And this is our audience…in church, in popular music, whatever. So, the point is not how our individual instruments sound. The point is how our individual instruments sound as they add to the sound as a whole. That one guitar note might help people worship……but it’s the keyboard pad in the background that sets the bed for that guitar note…..and it’s the drums that set the backbeat for that pad to work….and it’s the bass that keeps the harmonies anchored so that the vocal melody can sit just above all the instruments in the proper tonality. And then the congregation can be helped into worshiping the Savior by one cohesive sound, rather than ten individual sounds that see mixing together as an after-thought. 

So…if you have a chance, take a quick listen to Micheal Brook’s new “Bellcurve.” Or anything else where you find yourself just enjoying the music without really listening to the instruments. Moby is a great example. For me, it’s a huge help with leading worship and with humility in general. Because to create sound as a whole with other musicians, many times we’ve got to be humble enough to play the same 3 note riff very slowly for 4 straight minutes. And that’s hard to do when you have the other 5 guitarists on the worship team sitting in the congregation on your one day of the month to play. But it helps people worship, in my humble (hopefully!) opinion.

Until the End of the World

So…. I’ve got windows media player open on the side of my screen (ya, I’m not nearly cool enough to have a second monitor on which to run dvd’s) and I’ve got the U2 PopMart dvd playing. And Edge is playing the anti-solo for Until the End of the World. And there is much rejoicing.


(This is Edge and Bono of U2 during their trademark ‘duel’ at the end of ‘Until the End of the World’. And yes, it would be awkward and frightening anywhere but at a rock concert……….. no, it’s still a little awkward. And I love it anyway…… see that guitar? Mmmm……. tone…..)

Break out those Acoustics

I don’t know how many of you have been keeping up with the music scene, but the slowly rising indie genre of folk and Irish music has been gradually taking over. Great opportunity for us guitarists who (let’s be honest here) usually learn ourselves one style and then say it goes against our musical conscience to play out of that style. Break out the acoustics and learn some ambient and roadhouse blues stuff on those electrics to keep up with the times. 

It’d actually be nice if we all just wrote stuff straight from our soul and worried about melody rather than style, but that’s another post. hehe It’s also a good idea, if we’re trying to reach people, to keep one eye on what they’re listening to.


(Folk guitar at its best. Note the way the guitar covers the unbuttoned top of his fantastically late ’70’s plaid shirt, causing one to wonder, ‘Is his shirt even buttoned at all?’ I’m sure that’s the point. And these are the types of questions I don’t want to answer.)

I let this go?

So, this beautiful, handmade, one-of-a-kind, crafted by some hermit-guitar-genius in Burbank, guitar amp went on e-bay today. And I did not buy it. I let it go.


See, I’m not exactly sure what my problem is. If it’s handmade and no one else has one and it’s made by some crazy guy no one’s ever heard of, I just have to have it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a little tone gnome is whispering to me that I have to buy it because since no one has ever played through one of these, there must be magical tone fairies who will make sure that every note emitted from this piece of gear will bring magic tears to everyone who hears it. And I’m sure it’s a fantastic amp. But the cold hard facts are that I don’t need it! I have more gear than I can use as it is; I like my tone; I’m happy with life….yet, sweet mercy, it was hard not to bi on this. I have issues! I mean, a 1974 Marshall bluesbreaker could sell for $8, and I wouldn’t bat an eye, because people already have those. But give me some random piece of gear that was built in a bombshelter by some half-homeless guitar player, and I’m all over it. 

Luckily today, the alarm bells ringing in the other side of my brain, alerting me to the fact that I have bought things like this before and then they have sat in my closet while I eat peanuts and raisins for the next three months. The alarm bells drowned out the tone gnome. And I can pay rent this month.

Yet still I wonder….what if….

Guitar for Worship Workshop

Hey guys and gals,

    I’m going to be doing a Guitar for Worship workshop on the night of April 7. It’s a Monday night, and it will start at 7 PM and probably go a couple hours. It’s either going to be at Life Church, or someone’s house. I’m waiting to hear back from our facilites manager at my church to see if I can use the sanctuary. Most likely it will be available.

    So, I’d love to have everyone come out to this. You can bring your rig, and I’ll give a bit of a discussion on music in worship, the guitarist’s place in a worship set, and guitar tone and technique in general. We’ll do questions and answers, and I’ll take you through my rig, as well as a simple, inexpensive normal worship rig. And then usually we all kind of talk and learn from each other and play a little through our rigs. And I’ll make my way around and try to help out with re-wiring or recommendations for other gear, or fixing, or technique or effect ideas, or whatever you like if it pertains to worship, guitar, or tone. I’ll make my way to everyone’s rig that wants help, advice, or to show me where my opinions are wrong. hehe 🙂

    And one of my favorite parts of these nights is learning from everyone else. And then there’s always one or two guitarists who show up and could run the workshop way better, so you can really learn a lot and have a lot of fun and steal guitarists from other churches over to yours…hehe…just kidding. 🙂

   Again, that’s Monday night, April 7, at 7 PM. Bring your rig. 


Epiphone Valve Junior?

Well, I said goodbye to a couple of old friends yesterday…two amps and a cab. Actually, the one amp was awesome and I wanted to keep it forever, but I just wasn’t using it, and money dictates that I cannot keep what I am not immediately using, unfortunately. The cab was great and I’d had it forever. The other amp was pretty killer, too, but every once in a while (like every week) I just feel the need to look for something else. So I sold it to get something that was closer to what I needed….or wanted….I find that the further I go in my quest for tone, the more ‘need’ and ‘want’ get mixed up. And I revel in it.

So, anyway, I’ve been having trouble finding the amp I wanted, and the church has been needing a house rig anyway, so I figure I’ll buy something decent and hopefully inexpensive that can get me through the next couple weeks while I look for an amp that fits my needs; and I can then donate it to the church afterwards. Usually I go up to the shops in Hollywood for needs (or wants…I know, I know) such as this, but right now gas costs like what my grandfather paid for his first house, and a trip to Hollywood will take a good two hours worth of traffic sucking up said expensive gas. So I went to my local Guitar Center to check things out. Yes, I know. Most of you who know me know that there is a little bit of bitterness lodged deep within my heart toward Guitar Center. Basically, they sell a lot of junk and then treat you as if you should feel honored to give them your money in exchange for said junk. And I dislike that just a little bit. But, every once in a while, you can find some good deals on some not-so-junkie gear.

But…that not-so-junkie gear is usually found in the boutique room (they very originally call it “The Vault”) or hidden behind the Krankenstein amps with a ‘Used’ tag on it. (And for those of you who think I just made that up…nope. There really is an amp called the Krankenstein. And please note…if you play out of a Krankenstein, you’re awesome. I can’t and will never for the life of me be able to get a good sound out of that amp or most of the amps at Guitar Center…but if you can, then hats off, props, and more power to you!) So….I go into “The Vault” and there’s one or two vintage amps that I like, but the prices are way jacked up. So I continue to look around, and my eyes fall upon the Epiphone Valve Junior.


(Note the U2 book and picture in the background. U2 makes me happy. And yes, that is a Frodo action figure in the background on the right…he and Samwise Gamgee are still in their shrink wrap and will one day fetch me thousands of dollars for my retirement because that’s what old shrink-wrapped toys do when you sell them 40 years later. These are the things I tell myself.)


So there’s the Epiphone Valve Junior….rumored to be an all tube circuit. Now once again….a little background about myself: I like tubes. I like them very much. I think they make the best sounding amps. You may not think this, and that’s cool. But I love tubes very much. And I love tube amps that have been handbuilt. I like the clarity of the sound when the signal is unimpeded by circuit boards and the like. So, I never really gave this amp much thought, as its a production run amp, not a handbuilt one. It’s also very inexpensive, and as a general rule, large companies like Epiphone like to make large profits. So if something is this inexpensive, I immediately think that if they’re still making their usual profit, then this thing must be really cheaply made. However, I have read some really good reviews on this amp, and they look pretty trick, and it is just chilling there in the store. So I pick up a fairly decent guitar, find a cable (a feat at Guitar Center these days), and try it out. 

First chord sounds…..good. What? Can’t be. It must just be that it is the first in tune thing my ears have heard since walking into Guitar center and being attacked with warlike fury by the out of tune guitars in chorus playing eight different versions of ‘Crazy Train’. So I play another chord….then a little riff. Still sounds good. The notes are sitting on top of each other nicely. The cleans sound very full. Overdrive isn’t bad. Both neck and bridge pickup bring out different subtleties from the amp. So I talk to a sales guy, the amps are on closeout, and out the door I go with an all tube head and birch cab with an Eminence 12 inch speaker for right around 200 bucks.

So now for the review. Yikes, I talk a lot! I’m just now getting to the review? Oh, well.

So, it’s a 5 watt head with a 12AX7 tube for the preamp, and an EL84 tube for the power amp. I would guess that it would normally give about 2.5 watts, but the solid state rectifier helps give it more output and probably higher clean headroom (Fenders are great at this). And don’t let the term ‘solid state’ for the rectifier get you down. Solid State rectifiers have been used in fender amps for years, and I personally like the flavor they give…not worse, but just different, and probably less saturated but cleaner than tube rectifiers. So I plugged my board into my main amp, and then a/b’d it with the Epiphone. And the Epiphone sounded very good. Not nearly as good, but much better than I expected, and good enough for me to keep it, which I still wasn’t expecting. It sounds very warm, and surpisingly full. Good harmonics. Not very much clean headroom (I mean, it’s 5 watts), but perfect for a church or small club situation where the sound tech wants less stage volume and you’re going to mic the amp anyway. Past about 10 or 11 o’clock, the amp starts to overdrive with humbuckers. Not a completely saturated overdrive, but still really good sounding. Highs are lacking a bit. Overall, a very good amp. I don’t know if Epiphone was trying to make a good amp, or if they just wanted to make the cheapest tube amp they could, and in so doing came up with a really, really clean and simple circuit. But it sounds very good. The speaker in the cab is good, but totally mismatched. It’s 70 watts, and it’s being paired with a 5 watt head. I’ll probably replace the speaker so it gets pushed more. 

So, final words would be…..

A very good amp if you’re going to be mic’ing it. Missing a bit of the high end in the tone…some people like that, though. It won’t hold its own in a loud band practice with no mic’ing. A fantastic amp for the money ($200, sometimes cheaper on e-bay). And there’s a ton of mods you can look up online and do yourself, or send the amp to someone to do it for you. You might want to change the speaker, to a lower wattage one to run more efficiently off of the head, and I’m guessing the tubes are something Russian or Chinese production, so it’ll probably do the tone good to change them to JJ or something vintage. 

Hope that was somewhat informative. As someone who tries to be accepting of all avenues to tone, but ends up unfortunately being a boutique and vintage snob sometimes, I had to eat some humble pie playing through this amp. Not the best, but very good.