Archive for January, 2009
I have this recurring dream. Seriously, I do; it happens about every couple weeks. I’m on stage somewhere, and at the downbeat of the first song, I realize that I forgot to set up my rig. I’m either on stage with nothing, just standing up there like…what do they call those jerks who don’t have to set anything up…oh, ya!…vocalists. (Just kidding, but again…only a little ), or I’ve got half my rig, or I’ve got a guitar but no amp, or some combination of those. And it’s really, really scary. Like the time when I was five and I the skeleton in the haunted tree laughed at me on the commercial for the halloween fruit snacks, and then I had a dream that I was playing count to 200 while riding circles on my bike and the skeleton was on my porch. This dream is just as scary; I’m just a little older now…so instead of being afraid of things that actually are kinda scary (skeletons are scary, right?), I’m now more afraid of public embarrassment. Hmm…maybe the kids are actually on to something.
It can be at any place, too. Sometimes I’m playing with one of my old bands, sometimes a nameless worship team, sometimes friends who don’t even play instruments, and, at times, it has been Moby, Plankeye, and U2. Yep. I said Plankeye. I don’t know why I have dreams about famous people. One time I dreamt that Bono and I were at the zoo, and then Sting started yelling ‘Bono! Bono!’ and running up to us. Then Bono said, ‘Great. Now he’s gonna want to hang out with us all day.’ It’d be way better if I were making this stuff up. I’m not.
So if you have actual nightmares about not setting up your gear in time for the set, you might have too much gear. haha Wait, ‘too much gear’?! hehe Sorry, I say crazy things sometimes.
This is the coolest looking pedal I have ever seen.
And that was almost the end of the review. See, I bought this pedal because BJFe effects pedals are like, all the rage right now amongst the boutique snobs (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, especially considering that some might consider me one of their kind). They’re handmade in Sweden by Bjorn Juhl, and it’s rumored that he has learned the ancient Swedish art of enslaving mini-gnomes to run on treadmills inside the pedals to allow the signal to be not just analog, but actually alive. Well…close. Some of the rumors are not that far from saying he has ‘mini-gnomes.’ I’m serious. People get crazy about tone. And about…uh…who has the most handmade-looking pedal. But, because of all the hype, I really had to try one out for myself.
Now, they’re a little expensive for my blood, so I fully expected to sell it after demo-ing it. I’m always a little skeptical about pedals that get hyped with rumors of fairy tale men living together inside them. But then I pulled it out of the package. It was like opening a box of rejoicing. Here, let me show you the rejoicing:
See what I mean? Fabulously deep and swirled, bowling ball-textured wine red in color. And that led? Yep. Brilliant blue. And it even has that handmade touch of the lettering being written in that craft paint your Mom used to let you play with as a kid in the ’80′s if you were able to go a whole week without convincing your sister she liked baseball so she would spend all her birthday money on your baseball cards so you would have more money for more baseball cards. (Uh…) So anyway, when I first held the rejoicing in my hands, I knew that I would have to keep this pedal so that I could have an automatic win in the unspoken but oh-so-real game of ‘Who has the coolest pedalboard at the gig’ that we guitarists silently play with each other every time we get together.
Luckily, I have no money right now, so I knew I could only keep this one or my current fuzz, the Hartman. So after gazing at it from a respectful distance and with the proper lighting a pedal of this magnitude requires for a good few hours, I was finally able to plug it in and demo it. Here’s the video…with extremely poor lighting so that you will be able to judge the pedal’s sounds objectively without getting hypnotized by its rejoicing. (Actually, I just forgot to turn my desk lamp on.)
So this pedal has the most fuzz I have ever heard in a single pedal. It’s fuzz knob at 11 o’clock is most fuzz pedals’ fuzz knobs cranked. You can really go crazy with this pedal. It’s like it’s able to compress all those harmonics and fullness into this incredible sustainy tone…but without the compression. I’m not sure if that makes sense. But it’s like all the goodness of compression without squashing the tone. And that nature knob is very useful because of it’s built-in gate. So you can crank the fuzz sounds and get this over-the-top fuzz, but the gate keeps it from becoming un-playable. Overall, a huge sounding pedal, with more fuzz and more useable sounds in it than any fuzz I have played as of yet. Beautiful harmonics, almost too much sustain, and a lot of guts. It is a more vintage-voiced pedal, and there is not a tone knob. It’s definitely a good voice, but a vintage one. A little thinner than some of the more modern sounding fuzzes out right now. But it’s still a germanium fuzz, so the sound tends to just spread out and saturate, which makes it warm and full, even though the actual voicing is a little more in the upper range. Very clear, and fairly responsive at the lower fuzz settings. The high ones, obviously…well, once you get to setting the fuzz there, you’re looking for nasty fuzz sounds, not responsiveness. But just gorgeous, rich, and full sounds coming from this pedal. Looks and sounds beautiful.
If I had not yet played the Hartman fuzz, this BJFe would have been a keeper; and I would have won all the silent pedal wars of coolness. But alas, for my uses, the Hartman is a little warmer, and a little deeper-voiced. And off went the BJFe. One day I’ll meet the guy I sold it, too. And his pedalboard will beat mine…because of the BJFe Candy Apple Fuzz I sold to him. And there will be no more rejoicing. I’m told that pedalboards are about tone, and that I should be keeping the pedals that sound the best. I’m seriously wondering right now if I shouldn’t just be picking the coolest-looking, rarest, and most handmade-looking-magic-mojo pedals. Would my rig be less toneful? Maybe. Would it be cooler? Absolutely.
Look what the pursuit of tone does to us.
There are certain things in life you can do without. Like a phaser. I like phasers. But if it came down to it, I could get rid of it and make due. But there are other certain things that you just can’t negotiate against; and some of them I’m learning about just recently…like…this weekend. Here’s the ones off of the top of my head:
- Rhythm. Tempo is like, the most important factor ever and very few musicians seem to care. Without tempo, every time one person in the band does anything other than ‘block measure playing’, the tightness dies. Sometimes it’s murdered. Brutally.
- Celestion Alnico Blue or some sort of Blue speaker. If you have an EL84-based amp, then your answer to the question, ‘Should I get a Blue?’ is ‘Yes.’ Not should be ‘Yes.’ No. The answer just plain is ‘Yes.’
- A fresh battery in your acoustic guitar. (I hate the word ‘fresh’. It’s just so gross and pseudo-happy sounding. It’s like ‘slice’ and ‘treat’. Ech. Disgusting. I seriously feel like I need to shower right now. But I didn’t know what other word to use.)
- Irish flutes. You should definitely use an Irish flute whenever possible. At least those are the words I live by.
- A solid bass player. Makes everything else in the band ‘fit.’
- A tuner. The ‘I tune by ear’ excuse is really not holding water as I listen back to the recording of the service.
- Delay. I’ve rigged my amp not to turn on unless it senses a delayed signal in the signal path. Not really.
- Love. I didn’t run into a single perfect person, instance, sound, song, or piece of equipment this weekend at church (except for my Tim pedal ). Which leads me to believe that neither me nor anything I did was perfect either. Love.
- String cheese. Life may as well not exist if you don’t have string cheese.
- Braveheart, gluten-free pizza, and my wife.
- Power conditioners. A great-sounding rig can be killed by both noise and by parts of it not getting enough power.
- Practice. (I can’t believe I still have to tell myself this)
- Singing on key. Hit a wrong chord on your guitar if you have to, but stay on key vocally!
- The internet. Have you ever stopped to think about how cool the internet really is? I mean, seriously! I shared our church service with the world (or the 4 people that tune in), bought a pedal from overseas, and learned from opinions across the country on how best to isolate power, and checked to see if it was raining (so I didn’t have to actually get up and walk outside), in about 5 minutes.
- Songs people know. We’re up there for their sake, not ours. If you can’t stand the song, but the congregation is absolutely worshiping to it, then trudge through. Play the new one you like when you get home, and worship your heart out there. At church, it’s not about us.
- Even if your tone is bringing tears of joy to your eyes, turn it down if you see people cringing on the solos. Or check that you’re in the right key. Either one.
- Candy. People only sign up for your ministry if there is candy at your sign-up table. If need be, steal it from the spiritual growth table.
- Spray-on deodorant and tic-tacs. After a rousing session of worship, if you want to participate in any type of relational activity involving other people, this is vital.
- And lastly, delay. I think I said that already. But just in case, ‘Delay.’ Ever just love your tone, but then look down, and you don’t have any delay on? So you turn a delay pedal on, just so that you’ll know that the tone you love has delay in it? Ya…
Most of the time, I try to keep this site to articles pertaining (at least a little) to guitars, guitar gear, worship music, all the important stuff. But in the intelligent words of Keanu Reeves, ‘Whoa.’ I was really trying to stay out of this, because I knew that everyone would expect a post from me on it…and I had one all worked out…because when I first heard the new U2 single on the radio on Tuesday, I was shocked and disappointed. So I spent all day at work writing this blog post in my mind about it (yep, that’s what I do at work…write blog posts in my head), and I started to enjoy my post as it existed in my mind, and I was amusing myself greatly with it (sad, yes). But then I got home and listened to the song again. (And much thanks to Kenrick, over at The Busy Pixel blog , for sending it to me. Why download what’s already sitting in your e-mail for free? And uh, U2, in case you’re reading…hehe…riiiiigggghhhhht…I did eventually download it…just to show you how much I support your work…my .99 cents is yours, my brothers.) And upon a second listen, I was even more disappointed, because now I was starting to like the song. And that just sucked…because my whole post in my head that I had been enjoying so much, was based on the not liking of the song.
However, as much as I was digging the new single, upon subsequent listens, it wasn’t life-changing. So now I’ve got this song that I don’t hate, so that doesn’t make for a very good post. But it didn’t explode my head with it’s wonder either, so that doesn’t make for a very good post. So I was going to just stay out of it.
But over the last few days, I’ve gotten e-mails, comments, texts, phone calls, smoke signals…every possible communication medium you can imagine has been used to ask me what I think of this new U2 single. (That’s where the Keanu Reeves ‘Whoa’ comes in.) It’s like, How do all these people know I like U2? It’s not like I broadcast it or anything. So I figured, I gotta post about it.
It’s called ‘Get On Your Boots’, and it was released on Tuesday. And let’s get two things out of the way here. hehe One, I would love to just come right out and say that I am not defending this song just because I have signed pictures of The Edge that I say goodnight to every evening before bed, and because my life would be nothing without their music, and because I want to wear their skin to my birthday. I would love to say that I’m giving a good review to the song because I really honestly like it, and that I’d like it even if it wasn’t U2, and that the whole reason I like U2 is because they continuously put out great music. And if they ever put out some bad music, I wouldn’t like it, I wouldn’t buy it, and I’d be okay with that. I’d like to say that. And even now, I believe that all that’s true (except for the Blades of Glory part). But, I have to be real with myself; I do like them a lot, and it is probably more difficult than I imagine for me to be objective about them. So take what I say with a grain of salt. I’m like the insane person who gets sane for a moment, and tells everyone to be careful of what he’s about to say. hehe And two, there are a good deal of songs written by U2 that I don’t like. So, it’s not like I totally dig everything they’ve ever done. If they put out a bad one, I really have no problem admitting it. Let’s see, the first one that comes to mind is ‘Numb.’ What in the world were they thinking? And, um, ‘The Wanderer’ with Johnny Cash. Adam’s bass line sounds like something out of Reading Rainbow. And ‘Playboy Mansion’. Great lyrics, but the song just annoys. Then there’s the live ZooTV version of ‘Desire’, with so much flange on Edge’s guitar that you can barely make out the harmonic base. And lastly, the entire ‘October’ album, with the exception of the beautiful and haunting title track. So…just so you know that there in fact, are some U2 songs that I think suck.
So now that that’s out of the way, like I said earlier, the first time I heard it, I was ultra-disappointed. But that’s pretty standard for me and U2. See, like it or not, they as a band enjoy re-inventing themselves. And that makes for some angry fans. Like, from the ‘Unforgettable Fire’ album to ‘The Joshua Tree’ album. It’s normal to us now, but ‘Unforgettable Fire’ was pretty ambient, soundscape, big arena type stuff. And then to go straight to ‘Where the Streets Have no Name’? With the dance beats, and complete un-moodiness? No one had ever heard anything like that before, and critically, that album got horrid reviews at first. But the general public (the non-musicians), loved it. I remember the first time I heard ‘Zoo Station’ a few years back. I was so digging on ‘The Joshua Tree’ stuff and the ‘War’ stuff, from cd’s I had borrowed from a friend when I was first getting into U2 from my death metal days. And then I went to buy my first U2 album at Best Buy, when my friend wanted her cd’s back, and all they had was ‘Achtung Baby.’ So I was like, ‘Ok, cool.’ And when I first heard the first track, which was ‘Zoo Station’, I was mortified. But now, it’s one of my favorite songs, and I daresay that ‘Achtung Baby’ is possibly my favorite album of theirs. Same when I heard ‘Discotheque’ and I was expecting ‘Zooropa’. Same when I heard ‘Vertigo’ and was expecting ‘Beautiful Day’.
See, I’ve come to love this about U2. Because I already have ‘The Joshua Tree’. It’s amazing. I love it. It has kiss marks on the cover. But I already have it. I don’t really want a re-hash of it. I want to hear, once again, U2 taking their incredible musicianship, melodies, orchestrations, and passionate playing, and put it into a style I’ve not yet heard.
So that’s one reason I think this single is getting some anger from U2 fans. It’s definitely surprising. Secondly, I think it’s not being liked by some, because they tend to reach out first, to the general public; and then to the musicians and critics later. If you look at the charts, this single is rocking. People are really enjoying it. When I check all the comments on the many youtube versions that are up of this song, the ones complaining are musicians and die-hard U2 fans. The nominal fans and general public are going, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’ It’s not ripping your heart out, it’s not making you cry, it’s not filling an arena, but it’s pretty rockin’. And U2 uses their musicianship to reach a non-musical audience very well.
Thirdly, this song is very ‘on the cusp’ of what’s about to happen musically. You may or may not like it, but those high falsetto parts sung in like a chorus of voices? Kinda sexy and R&B sounding? Very MGMT, who are totally climbing the charts right now. The tight harmonies over chord progressions your ears aren’t used to hearing? Very much Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. And the industrial guitar sound? Secret Machines and Minus the Bear, all the way. Somehow, even at their age, they’re able to take whatever the sounds and styles that are just breaking the scene, and meld them together to pave the way with a new sound.
And fourthly, what we may be seeing (depends on how the rest of the album sounds), is another total departure for U2. This album might be for them in the late 2000′s what ‘Achtung Baby’ or ‘Zooropa’ or ‘Pop’ was for them in the ’90′s. Which, if it is, I know will not be liked but a lot of big U2 fans. For me, I loved those albums, so I’m cool with this. The only album I didn’t like, like I said, was ‘October’. And that wasn’t because of its style, it was because none of the melodies or harmonic and rhythmic texture was very good…just not good song-writing. But if they stay with writing out of their passion, and not to produce another album, I tend to like most of it.
And that’s all well and good; but if you don’t like ‘Get on Your Boots’, you don’t like ‘Get On Your Boots’. No worries. For me, it seems fun, rockin’, and totally different. There’s melodies in it that I can’t get out of my head, and a certain tightness and non-linear-ness that I have as of yet not heard from U2. And take into account, too, that this is one track from the album. I’ve read the synopses for the others, and they’re supposed to sound completely different from each other.
Because, like I said, I’m loving this song right now for what it is. But it didn’t change my world, like a lot of other U2 songs have. If the whole album sounded like it, I would be a little disappointed. So for those of you who are disappointed, here’s a couple tracks to make you feel better. They were both written within the last two years, after the ‘Dismantle’ album, so there’s a good chance there will be some sounds like this on the new album, too.
The first one is a cover of Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe in father Christmas’. It just came out last month, so you can pretty much bet a good portion of the album will be close to this vein.
And the second, of course, is ‘Window in the Skies.’ I love this song, and have been just waiting for an excuse to put it on here. One of the best videos of all-time, too. And again, there’s a ’60′s thing going on in the music here that I’m guessing will flow over into a couple tracks on the new album.
Good times. I’m rockin’ to ‘Get On Your Boots’ right now; but if you’re not, and the pieces of the world are crumbling around you because you hate the new U2 single, hopefully these tracks helped a bit. (And if you want some more, within the 4 years since their last album, they have also covered 3 Beatles songs: ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Lucy in the Sky’, and ‘I am the Walrus.’) So to all of you who asked me about this new single, there’s my really, really, really long answer. I think it’s great, but hopefully the whole album doesn’t sound like it, and it didn’t make me cry tears of joy. But I still think it’s pretty darn good, especially for non-musicians in the time of music we’re in. And if you hate it, oh well. That’s why we still have ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘City of Blinding Lights’ to listen to; and, as Jeff over at Blogsology pointed out, Coldplay’s new offering as well. Which, by the way, the first time I heard the ‘Vida La Vida’ single, I hated it; because I was expecting more of ‘X & Y’. Now I love it. Sometimes it just depends on what you’re expecting to hear. And sometimes it doesn’t.
And remember, all this is coming from a guy who picks out what U2 shirts he buys by how close a proximity each shirt will place the photo of Edge to his heart, so……take all this how you will. hehe
Ever have those moments on stage where it feels like the music is literally inside you, and you can’t get enough of it outside of you, into your instrument? Suddenly you’re no longer trying to play with feel, but the feel of the music is overcoming you, and you’re powerless to stop it?
I wish these moments were more often. (Maybe the audience or congregation doesn’t, but hey…) And unfortunately, I can’t say it any better than this clip. I wish I could, because then I could have written the film, and then I would have a little something I like to call ‘money’, which would then render me free from having to choose between food and guitar gear anymore. It would just be all guitar gear.
But alas, I simply cannot find a better way to communicate this. (And please note, it is an older film, it does have a clarinet, and it is a little long. Start it at about 1:40 if you like, to cut down on the time a bit, and end it at 6:20. And for those of you who are automatically frightened every time you hear the word ‘clarinet’, there’s a guitar clip at the bottom, too. But it means more if you watch the…wait for it…’clarinet’ one first.
‘Don’t play the notes on the page. Play the sunset.’ See? I tried and tried, and couldn’t come up with anything that sounded as rad as that. And for those of you who are wondering, the ‘sunset’ is not a solo. Nope. The ‘sunset’ is most definitely an anti-solo.
And here’s one of the greatest examples I have ever found of someone going beyond the notes on the page. With feeling and passion, of course…not by adding more notes.
Wow. I almost cry every time I hear him play that song. Note that I said every time I hear ‘him’ play it, though. Jeff Buckley is the only one who has a right to cover this song. And since he has unfortunately passed, this song should now not be covered. I’m so serious. It seems that everyone who has ever picked up a guitar has decided that they will be indie and original if they film themselves covering Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ (which he himself was covering) and put it on youtube, and then everyone will marvel at their amazing vocal skills and their ability to find this ‘underground’ song. And in reality, you just get 50,000 terrible versions of this beautiful song, sung by people trying to look and sound cooler than the previous version. It’s getting out of control. And…uh…if you’re reading this and you actually have a cover of it on youtube as we speak…I’m sure yours sounds awesome! This is just a sore subject with me because I…um…well…okay. I admit. I’ve played this song at church before and thought I was ultra-cool. Blast. I said it. So please. All of us. Let’s just find another song to be cool with.
And play it like you literally can’t contain the feeling.
So on Sunday, we’re ending the service with ‘Amazing Love.’ And I’m playing the progression, softly, and oh-so-worshipfully, underneath our pastor as he gives the altar call. I’ve even got the closed eyes, with the head tilted slightly to the left as if that helps me hear the Spirit better, and I’m giving the ‘Yes, Lord’ nod every once in a while. And as I’m doing the G/B C G/B D progression (or tonic with third in the bass, sub-dominant, tonic with third again, dominant, progression, for the sake of showing how songs can share progressions without necessarily sharing keys), I suddenly realize that ‘Amazing Love’ sounds a lot like ‘Free Fallin’.’ Not exactly, but close enough to make me quite happy. So I start singing ‘Free Fallin’ in my head while I’m uh, tenderly playing under the salvation message.
So now, as our lead pastor revs into the big, heart moment, and the congregation silently prays, and my guitar is softly helping the mood with the ‘Amazing Love’ chords……I’m now off in a completely other place, trying to figure out what chord comes next for ‘Free Fallin’.’ And please note that I am picking out the chords here…I’m not flashy-John-Mayer-fingerpicking, as cool as that is. The point here is not to say that I’m such a great guitarist that I can make worship songs sound like Tom Petty or John Mayer. I’m not (and I’ve tried, which is even sadder). The point is, one, how most good songs share chord progressions; and two, how incredibly far away from worship you can get in your mind; while still keeping the eyes closed, head tilted to the side so as to better hear the Spirit, ‘Yes Lord’ nodding thing.
And then my pastor finishes strongly, gives me a deeply spiritual look of mutual Christian understanding, I step to the mic, open my mouth, and start to sing, ‘She’s a good girl, living in Recita…’ Yep. Luckily I turned my head away just in time so that all they got was ‘Sh…’ Which could be bad on other levels, too. And then I had to actually re-think how ‘Amazing Love’ starts. Oh, ya! It starts like ‘Free Fallin’!'
Incredible how far away I can be at times…when no one else knows. Nothing wrong with ‘Free Fallin’;’ just perhaps not the best choice when people are making the most important decision of their lives.
And into guitar tone; in the purest sense of the word. Not the tone of your overall rig, but the tone of your instrument itself. We’ve kind of gone backwards in my own personal (meaning ‘right’, of course ) hierarchy of tone. We discussed the pedalboard tone first, which I consider to be the least important. Then we delved into amp tone, the middle importance in electric guitar tone. And if you missed those, you can find the links in the archives to your right. There’s 2 parts of pedalboard tone, and 5 (and a half…hehe) parts of amp tone.
Now I don’t know if everyone’s like me in this area, but I had issues with actual guitar tone. See, the guitar is your instrument; the amps and pedals are tools, and necessary ones at that, but the guitar is what is supposed to be producing the actual sound. And somehow, in my mind, I got it backwards. I guess I saw all the people playing either Gibsons or Fenders and hence, wanted to be different. (I have this thing about needing to be different…sometimes it’s good, other times it’s really, really bad. This is one of those times it was bad.) So I decided (without putting it into actual words of course, because that would have horrified me…it’s amazing in life how much we can convince ourselves that things are okay by simply just not thinking about them too much) that people would be much more impressed with a huge pedalboard (or two) and a huge stack of amps (or three). And then everyone would just be overcome with awe and hail me as the new Steward of All Things Toneful when they saw that my teary-eyed, brilliant tone was coming from none other than a Squire guitar. (Well, BC Rich Mockingbird at the time…which ws a problem…even if the tone had been amazing, which it was not, that guitar is so ugly that your brain will literally reject the idea that any good sound could be coming from it.)
So I built up two enormous pedalboards, ran two amps in stereo, a third amp for ambient sounds, and then sent a signal through all that from a Delta Les Paul. (I know, you’ve never heard of them. Neither has anybody else. Which is what I dug about them. And which is also what made my tone bad. Well, that, and running through about 33 pedals with the signal split 4 times, and no buffers or bypass loopers of any kind. Holy tone suck, Batman.
(Here’s the Mockingbird, in all its splendor. Yes, play on stage with that guitar at church. Little distracting. And a lot cheesey. And if you play one of these, please know that I am not saying that you have bad tone. Some of the higher end models from the ’80′s actually sounded pretty good. But I am saying that you play an ugly guitar. Nothing I can do about that. But just melt our faces off with tone, and we’ll all shut up. hehe)
And even later, when I had streamlined both my pedalboards and amps into being more toneful, I still hadn’t let go of wanting to get that elusive tone in my head out of these no-name guitars. And it wasn’t a question of money…I could have sold 10 pedals that I never would have missed, and bought a much better guitar. No. Money would have been a good excuse; being an idiot was not.
So needless to say, I have been through the gamet of guitars. I’ve had the cheap stuff (late ’90′s Squire, BC Rich Bronze series), the sleeper-supposed-to-be-custom-made-but-you-can-tell-they’re-off-an-assembly-line-in-China stuff (Delta, Brawley), and the vintage sleepers (1981 Ibanez Strat, 1978 Gibson The Paul, and 1975 Memphis neck-through). Notice that even when I started to give in and go with vintage name brand stuff, I still bought three ‘okay’ guitars, instead of pooling the money, selling some amps, and getting a really good guitar. Very unfortunate. And what I’ve learned through all this, is that, in my hopefully humble opinion, the guitar is the most important part of your sound. I would rather play a great guitar directly into the house system than play a junky guitar through a multi-thousand dollar boutique amp. And I know a lot of people disagree with that. And I do a little bit, too…it’s like saying, ‘Which would you rather have in a film, a great actor or a great director?’ And the answer of course, would be ‘Both.’ But you bring up the question anyway to bring into focus the importance of one the factors. So, the answer to having a great guitar or a great amp, is that one is no good without the other. But to magnify the importance, I would answer ‘Guitar.’
(And this is what happens when you get a bad director and a bad actor. Or two. Antonio Banderas and…in case you were wondering, yes, that is Enrique Iglesias on the right, trying his darndest to be cool. And yes, their guitar cases do have guns. Except for the big one on the left…that one is a remote controlled bomb with wheels. Excruciatingly bad.)
When I finally made the leap to a ‘real’ guitar, as Mike Huffman would say (for those of you who don’t know, this guy was one of my main tone mentors…he would have my try his pre-1995 PRS and ’73 Les Paul against my Delta…and when I would stubbornly tell him that there was just something about my Delta that I liked better, he would simply look at me with this frustrated look, and try to start like 50 words, before getting out, ‘No!’), the difference was immediate and final. It was such a relief off of my shoulders to listen to my tone and actually like it. Actually. Not convince myself I liked it. Not listen for the harmonics and think, ‘Oh those are what make up good tone, and they sound muddy in this room. When it’s mic’d, it’ll be amazing.’ (It is honestly incredible what the human mind can rationalize when it wants to.) No. It was an actual sound that pleased me without any rationalization. And more importantly, for art’s sake, a sound that pleased other people.
Now, this is not to say that you have to go out and buy a really expensive guitar. On the contrary, a large portion of the stuff coming out of Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, PRS, etc. right now is not very good. But, there are some expensive guitars from boutique builders or from 25 years ago, that are very, very good. And those are fairly expensive. Now here’s where I’m going to get some disagreements: you know that old adage, ‘You get what you pay for?’ Ya. Unfortunately, it is most often times true. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t have a great sounding cheap guitar. You know, the one that you found in the pawn shop in Hollywood, that was made by some washed up guitarist who could never make it, but with his dying breath, finished the most immaculate guitar ever conceived, and it somehow ended up in this hole-in-the-wall place on Sunset. (Seriously, I have actual dreams about this stuff; I’m salivating just thinking about it right now. For all my talk, I still haven’t quite broken myself of this dream. hehe) Or the guitar from DeArmond that just happened to be made with this great sounding tree, and they accidentally wound the pickups to ’57 specifications, and it was set next to something in the warehouse that made the pickups age properly, and the guy setting the neck onto it just happened to have been the luthier who had fallen on hard times and gotten a job of DeArmond for one day, and happened to put that guitar together. And I’m exaggerating, but stuff like this does happen. Over the (literally…which is very, very sad) hundreds of pedals, amps, and guitars I’ve owned, I’ve found maybe two that something close to this had happened. The thing that should not sound good, but it somehow does. But they are very, very few and far between.
Over the course of this guitar tone series, we will go into some tips on what to look for in an inexpensive guitar that will make it sound good. You can find them. But, if you have the means, I would suggest selling a couple pedals, and buying a high-end, custom made guitar, or a vintage guitar, and just see for yourself. If I’m wrong, you can sell it again, and perhaps even make a little money. But the impact might just stun you. And note that pedals and amps just ‘effect’ and ‘amplify’ your tone, in general. Ya, they help it (especially amplifiers), but a good tone from a guitar will make all your pedals and your amp sound better. The other night I met a guitarist who was playing through an amp I really dislike. And he still had the stock tubes and speakers in there. But he had a ’70′s Gibson. And the tone was very good.
And if you totally disagree, then awesome. But I’d urge you just to try one. For the sake of the fact that your guitar is your actual ‘instrument.’
For what it’s worth, here’s the guitars I’ve had that has very good, decent tone and that I got steals on. I would highly recommend both these instruments.
(1981 Ibanez Blazer series strat. Got it for $15o, set it up, and put in new pots and switches. For the money, a very good sounding guitar.)
(1978 Gibson Firebrand The Paul. Got it for $400. For a vintage Gibson, these are steals and sound very good.)
And for what it’s worth, here’s the guitars that changed my world. Always remember, good tone can change the world. Really wish I was joking right now; but no, I actually believe it.
(Gerard Melancon Pro Artist S. Solid aged ash body (with chambers), Lindy Fralin blues pickups, solid maple neck. Very expensive, but I got it used for not much more than a new USA Fender. Seriously, if you’re patient on the used market, you can get some high-end gear without selling off members of your family.)
(Sorry, the best picture I have of the Prairiewood has me in it, too, trying way too hard to look like a rockstar at church. And no, I do not have sunglasses on, indoors, during worship. It’s weird lighting. But that’s the Robert Dixon Prairiewood. Solid aged mahogany body, solid mahogany neck, 2 piece flame maple top, Wolfetone Dr. Vintage pickups, locking tuners, and coil tap. Again, I got it used, for not much more than a new Gibson. And I only mention all the specs to show what you can get if you start looking away from the big companies. Well, and because you do fall in love with your guitars. )
Now I got both those used, as opposed to ordering them from the builders, which would have been a lot more expensive. Here’s a quick guide of some less expensive, moderately expensive, and expensive guitars (and all those relate to price, not build quality or tone, necessarily).
–Pre-1990 Squire. (I’m serious…they used great wood and decent pickups in these. The earlier the better.)
–Laguna. (These are at Guitar Center, and former luthier Keith Brawley designs them. He does not build them, but they are still designed by him. I’ve tried them, and they sound surprisingly good.)
–Ibanez Artcore series hollowbodies. (Again, surprising.)
–Schecter. (For a more metal-ish tone, if that’s what you’re after. Make sure you get the Seymour Ducan pickups, not the ‘Duncan designed’ ones.)
–PRS SE series. (Not nearly as good as the pre-1995 PRS stuff, but very decent for the price.)
–Early ’90′s Fender.
–Fender Highway series. (The Korean made ones from a few years ago.)
–1980′s Greco (Gibson knockoffs.)
–Pre-1980 Ibanez (Gibson and Fender knockoffs. Ibanez used to be a lawsuit company.)
–Gibson Firebrands and The Paul’s. (Same as the Gibsons of the time period, but without the inlays and paint and pretty hardware.)
–Minarik (not sure…I haven’t heard these in a few years, and my ears may have ‘grown up’ since then. Or they may still sound very good.)
–Old G&L (Like, early ’90′s?)
–Gibson custom shop R8.
That’s definitely not a definitive list. But it’s a start. Next post in this series will go into what to look for in wood, pickups, hardware, and feel. But for now, remember that all these opinions from me or from anyone else are guides. They’re meant to help; use your ears as the final judge. And other people ears in the same room…because if you’re digging on your tone, but no one else is, it ceases to become art and becomes just therapy. Especially those of you that are worship musicians…we’re really there for other people.
And remember, these are my findings based on my own limited experience. And my apologies to the world as a whole for ever playing a BC Rich Bronze Series Mockingbird. Just thank your lucky stars it wasn’t a Warlock. I know I do…daily.
Especially as worship musicians. We seem to have a real problem with this. (And by ‘we’, I really mean ‘we.’ I’m including myself, not just using an expression.) We should be the ones taking ourselves the least seriously, as it’s assumed that we are doing what we do for something other than ourselves. As C.S. Lewis says, ‘The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.’ But I find, to my dismay (well, to my joy at first…it only turns to dismay later when I start writing these ‘honesty’ posts…which, by the way, I’m really thinking about not doing anymore…finding out way too many unfortunate things about myself), that when I’m up there ‘worshiping’, most times I am taking myself…uh…pretty seriously. I mean, I like what the other guitarist is doing, but could you shut up for just a second? I’ve got a riff that’s just gonna ‘make’ the worship right now. And if the ‘Listen-to-my-Phil-Wickham-falsetto worship leader’ would ever give me a mic, I just know my harmonies would kill! In a tender, worshipful way.
(Preview of things to come at the end of the post. And here’s the thing about this. At one time someone saw this cover and thought, ‘Yes! We got it. That’s the cover, right there.’ Kinda looks like something I’d have drawn on a text book in high school. Ya! And doesn’t he kind of have that ’70′s pretty boy flare of an outdated text book model? LIke, ‘Science Made Simple with Rick Springfield.’ Anyway…I think I’m kind of losing direction here…)
(This is another picture of my favorite rockstar/school-book cover model. He has done some great songs, though. Well, at least I like them. I dig some of that 80′s synth rock. At one time…meaning last year…I had a jacket in that baby blue color. I found it on a mannequin at church. I was excited. My wife made me throw it away. She has saved me in such ways so many times.)
And there’s just this seriousness and this gravity we give to ourselves. Not the whole ‘we’re the band’ thing; more of the fact that we see what we’re doing as so incredibly invaluable and irreplaceable. And don’t get me wrong…creating an atmosphere conducive to helping people connect with God in a real, passionate, and emotional way is important. But I think sometimes God’s up there laughing at us (good-naturedly, of course). Saying something to the effect of, ya Karl, you’re right…that was a killer U2 rip-off anti-solo, and it did just really help the song take off, and props to you, people were worshiping (even though it might have been a little loud, and a tad…just a tad…self-indulgent. But, uh, just to let you know, if you weren’t here, there’s about 6,043 other worship guitarists just in your city to choose from. And if there weren’t, another little side note here, people still would have worshiped. (Notice I didn’t put quotes around that…kinda scary to quote God if you’re just making stuff up…;)…that’s just something I can imagine Him thinking and chuckling about.
I guess sometimes it makes me laugh when I realize later how serious I was at that service about making everything perfect…not just the music, but the people’s worship of God, too. And in reality, all that stuff’s important, but I think we might have done better if God Himself had just appeared. You know what I mean? The music’s great, and props to you for being so good at it (I’m talking to everyone reading, not myself here…hehe), but the worship will happen with or without it, and with or without you (U2 reference absolutely intended). In the end, it’s our humble privilege that for some odd reason God chooses to use us to accomplish that end.
This is a clip of a U2 interview where they talk about musicians taking themselves seriously, but under the guise of serving God. You gotta skip to about 8:00 into it to get to the part. I could have re-edited it to just that part…but then I would have to have had video skills. And I really don’t…not even a little. The whole interview is pretty good, though…just not pertinent to this particular discussion. But if you watch the whole thing, please, please, please notice how it seems that Edge views Bono and all the crazy things he does and says as just kind of this source of humour (I spelled that the British way because it’s more awesome) for himself. The looks he gives when Bono says things are just fantastic. But, if watching Edge’s looks for 8 minutes (wow, that sounds bad…hmm…that probably is bad…if you’re new here, I admittedly have a bit of a big boy crush…and I am married to a wonderful woman…she understands) isn’t what you’re after, just skip to 8 minutes through for the stuff on taking ourselves too seriously. It’s about the security blanket we use by saying that God ‘gave us’ certain songs. Which is great, because then if the song sucks, no one wants to say that something God supposedly did, sucked. And no one wants to say, ‘Ya, bro, I don’t really think God gave you that.’ So here it is:
First time I saw that ending part, I just cracked up. I know I’ve used that security blanket statement before. Especially when someone comes up just to be nice and says, ‘Hey, you sounded good today.’ And you just go off with like, ‘Oh, praise God! It just felt like everything I played was like, directly from Him. I know, wasn’t He so using me today? Aw, praise to Him for all my talents.’ And then the person has this really awkward look on their face, because they really didn’t think you did that good, they were just being nice. And now they realize even though they didn’t think you were that good, you quite obviously think you were that good. Ya, I try to keep those situations to a minimum.
Anyway, maybe we (again, meaning ‘me’) should take a step back every once in a while and realize that in the grand scheme of things, we’re kind of small. And that drum fill, bass walk, keyboard riff, guitar swell, vocal harmony, or violin sustain is even smaller. And if you keep taking yourself seriously, you’re going to eventually feel even smaller. Because people notice. At churches and gigs alike, people notice the guy with that air of ‘Ya, it’s a Crate amp. But just watch the tone tear your face off.’ Or the other guy with the, ‘Ya, it’s a Bruno amp. And yes, I know you’ve never seen one up close before. And yes, my tone is bordering on too rich for your inferior hearing.’ To me, when we’re in that mindset (and notice that I say ‘when’, because it seems to happen to all of us at some point or another), I think we kind of look like Rick Springfield…which, if you’re wondering, is bad. Now, I love this song; but when I first saw the video, I thought, ‘Yikes, this is way too poppy and happy of a song for him to be thinking he’s so rockstar like that.’ Quite entertaining.
Ya, let’s not do that.
As wordpress is so awesome (for those of you who don’t know, I started this site on blog.com and it sucked very much a lot), you can actually see what people search to get to your blog. And one of the biggest searches is for the Zendrive overdrive pedal. The Zendrive is like the celebrity of boutique overdrives right now, I guess. I remember when Alfonso Hermida first started building them, they were like the underground sleeper pedal that was whispered about in hushed tones…not too loud, so as not to ruin the magic. Now, it’s become the kind of in-crowd password into the ‘handmade, boutique guitarist’ world. ‘Hey, nice board there. Have you tried the Zendrive?’ ‘Dude! I’ve so wanted to. I’m on the waiting list.’ There you go. You’re in the club. But if you would have answered, ‘The Zendrive? What’s that?’ Automatic shun. Seriously, I’ve unfortunately seen it happen; and, regrettably, probably done it a few times myself. We guitarists are such snobs. It’s terrible. But anyway, I’ve been so surprised at the popularity of this pedal. Oh, ya, and there is another response to that question. It’s: ‘Ya, I’ve tried the Zendrive, but it just didn’t do it for me.’ Then you are automatically worshiped, because you’re too good for the celebrity pedal.
So, a few months back, I got the Zendrive 1 and the Zendrive 2 (same pedal, but with a 12AX7 tube in it), just to see what all the hype was about. And they were both good, but…they didn’t really do it for me………… Just kidding. When I first tried them, I was really hoping those would be my sentiments, so that I could be hailed as the guitarist who not even ‘independently built handmade boutique junk was good enough for’, but alas, they unfortunately sounded really, really good.
And then I ran across, the older brother of the Zendrives, the Mosferatu. Sounds almost like the same circuit, just able to achieve higher gain levels and stay saturated. I found the Zendrives to like to be in that low overdrive, bluesy range. They sounded fantastic, too, at higher gains; they just would get a little more raspy and less full up there. So when I tried the Mosferatu, it was like a higher gain Zendrive. And that’s the one I decided to keep, as that was the application I needed. If money was of no consequence, I’d still have one of the Zendrives as a bluesy overdrive pedal. But it has been rare (if at any time at all) in my life that money has been of no consequence. So I put together a little video of the two Zendrives demo’d together, and then promptly sold them. And it wasn’t until after I returned from the post office, that I actually listened to the video. And it sucked…very much so. More accurately, my playing sucked. And if you’ve seen my videos, you know I’m not the greatest player in the world, and that I also screw up and hit clunkers or tune in the middle of a demo, or what-not. I’m not too picky. But with this video…well, let’s just say I didn’t want to be responsible for single-handedly killing the Zendrive craze. It was that bad.
But this past week, I was finally able to get my hands on the Zendrive 1 and the Zendrive 2 again, and do some ‘better’ videos. Oh ya, and the Mosferatu, which I’ve already had. See, the Mosferatu is my favorite, but it still gets forgotten. It’s like Adam, U2′s bass player. You just always forget he’s there. Sometimes I play a game with myself while looking at U2 pictures. It’s called, ‘Find Adam.’ And it’s surprisingly challenging. And you can play too, whilst gazing at photos of your favorite band (again, it’s entirely possible that I’m the only one who ‘gazes’ at photos of their favorite bands). Just find out who the bass player is, and then try to find him or her in the various photos. And if the band has a keyboardist (who isn’t the lead singer), then score! That adds a whole new level of difficulty. And bassists and keyboardists, again, my apologies. I love you, and everyone would go ‘What happened to the music?!’ if you weren’t there. But when you are there…well, you get the picture. It’s the life you chose.
Anyway, here’s the demo videos of the Hermida Audio overdrive pedals, the Zendrive 1, the Zendrive 2, and the Mosferatu. And for the interested parties, the Zen 2 has a Tung Sol tube in it, as opposed to the stock one.
So hopefully the videos showed what they can do, and the differences between them. But to summarize, I’ll just say they are all 3 incredibly sounding pedals, in my humble opinion. Very lifelike, dynamic, and able to let your guitar’s and amp’s tones shine through, while adding their own respective flavors of really full-bodied, yet clear, overdrive. Here’s the rundown:
Zendrive 2: probably the bluesiest of the bunch, and the most amp-like. Good for low overdriven, saggy tones, and great dynamic response. Very touch sensitive, and if an amp’s bluesy, low overdriven tube sound is what you’re after, I’ve yet to hear a pedal like this one. Also has a blue led, which adds a lot to the tone…in my mind. Love those blue led’s.
Mosferatu: probably the best for a high gain, overdrive/distortion sound. Retains its full character at high gain settings. Can also do low gain settings very nicely. Some say this pedal in essence, ‘has a Zendrive in it’, meaning it can sound just like a Zendrive, but also get the high gain stuff. I didn’t think it was right on with sounding like a Zen at low gain settings, but it did sound great at low gains, with its own character. It also really opens up at 12 volts, as opposed to the 9. And it has a red led, which sucks, because I love this pedal.
Zendrive 1: probably somewhere in between the Zen 2 and the Mosferatu. Excels at bluesy, low overdrive sounds, but is a little stauncher sounding than the Zendrive 2, with less sag. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just for whatever your preference is. And it can cop some high gain sounds…not quite as good as the Mos, but still very good. Again, opens up and gets a lot more clean headroom when run at 12 volts. And another beautiful, blue led. Just shines.
And for what it’s worth, I’m keeping the Mosferatu. But everyone’s different. Not everyone’s right, but everyone’s different. hehe I’m kidding, of course. If I had the money, I’d be keeping all of them. Maybe not to play, but at least to gaze at. Cuddle with only every once in a while.