Saturday, December 20, 2008

The "Naked" Truth

The Tone Farm would like to welcome back into the contributor's fold our good friend & part-time cosmic traveler Dave Tea. Over the past week or so, he and I have been corresponding in regards to the "original" super group - i.e. the Beatles. One such exchange involved the "Let It Be . . . Naked" album, which Dave has effectively broken down into a great timeline and story. The aforementioned ensues in the following post, graciously re-printed with his kind permission. Enjoy! - - J.

Not long ago, a new album was released by The Beatles called "Let It Be....Naked", which is a remastering and remixing of the original Get Back project. The track list is nearly identical to the original, but the "Spectorization" (*see last paragraph for an explanation of this term) is removed, leaving a raw, punchy feel to it. I'm sure Paul McCartney wanted it this way all along, and finally got the rest of the Beatles to agree.

Let It Be was the follow up to the White Album, which was the most non-Beatle album of all, meaning just about every track on it did not have all four Beatles participating. Many of them had only one Beatle, or one Beatle with various guest musicians sitting in. I could go on and on about the White Album because I think many of the tracks on it are the best the Beatles, or anyone ever produced, regardless of which Beatle wasn't present on game day.

Let it Be was a project that the Beatles unanimously agreed would be sort of a reunion of the core band. Fuck the frills and orchestras, tape-loopings, backward messages, studio trickery and overdubs that were so innovative on Revolver, Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album. It was time to GET BACK (which is what the project was titled initially) to the basics and function as a four-piece rock and roll band again.

The idea was that it would be a film of the Beatles rehearsing for some monster gig somewhere, and all of these songs would be performed live in concert at theend of the movie, maybe at Stonehenge or the Roman Colliseum, or maybe the Moon. It was never decided where, because after the hours and hours and days and weeks of filming and recording, The Beatles couldn't stand one another anymore. George Harrison actually quit the band and came back during this project.

The big finale concert of songs would be held on the roof of Apple Studios, none of these takes ended up on any released Beatles record.

What was left behind was many hours of takes, all of them live takes, meaning all musicians (including Billy Preston on the later stuff) played at the same timein the same room, just like the earliest Beatles recordings. No overdubs or added tracks. None of the Beatles or producer George Martin wanted to sift through the 50 takes of "Johnny B. Goode" or whatever and try to make a decent album out of this painful shit, so it was all shelved indefinitely. Shelved, I tell you!

"Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down" were released on a forty-five, as was "Let it Be" and "You Know My Name (look up the number)" but the rest of it was canned, most of which needed it badly. The Beatles were breaking up and had better things to do than go through these mostly-shit recordings and try to make a decent album out of them.

After some time away from each other, all of the Beatles agreed that they didn't want their legacy of music to end on such a sour note as the Let it Be sessions. They would go back to Abbey Road Studios and record an album with George Martin one more time, and blow everyone more time. The last recordings of The Beatles together were made and released on the album "Abbey Road".

The Let it Be recordings were later gone through (*over-produced, according to G. Martin) by Phil Spector and released on the Let it Be album. John Lennon thought Spector's improvements were a good thing, Paul McCartney was absolutely pissed, particularily about the added orchestra and girl singers on "The Long And Winding Road". Either way, the "Get Back" project ended up being known as the last Beatles album, because it was released last ("Let it Be" won the Grammy for best movie soundtrack). By the time it was released, it was more than a year old, which in Beatle-time was a long, long, long time. - by Dave Tea

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Smokin' Band

Try this one on for size.

A super-group featuring none other than ex-Beatle George Harrison on lead guitar; Billy Preston on organ; Niky Hopkins (Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Jeff Beck Group, et al) on piano; THE Carole King on electric piano; and backing vocals featuring the trio of Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, and ex-Mama Michelle Philips. A pretty heavy line-up to say the least.

And what particular song did these folks all collaborate on? None other than Cheech and Chong's "Basketball Jones" (*as featured on their 1973 album Los Cochinos). Lead vocals on the song were, of course, provided by Cheech Marin - - in character as Tyrone Shoelaces.

If you think that's far out - - check out the animated video short on You.Tube. It's like "Schoolhouse Rock" on drugs. Killer.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ugliest Guitars 2008

The fine folks over at Guitar have recently posted their picks for the Ugliest Guitars of 2008.

Personally speaking, the ultra-clunker count is down considerably from previous lists. But there are a few outstandingly twisted examples of musical passion gone awry. My personal favorites are: the Prince & The Revolution Gone Woodshop (#19); the Driftwood Coffee Table w/ Summer Camp Art Custom Pickguard (#10); the religiously-themed "He Made A Guitar out of a Discarded Wine Box" / Floral esprit (#2); and the creme' de le' creme' . . . the "Heel Boy" White Labrador as a Viking Ship Bow monstrosity (#6). BAD DOG!

Like 'em or not, they're always worth a good chuckle. - - J.

Toast of the Tone

When I see unique gear / equipment, I often find myself asking, "how in the hell did THAT come about." But a vintage toaster . . . as a guitar amplifier??!! Really - I thought I'd seen it all.

The folks at Hottie Guitar Amps apparently saw a need for a toaster-housed guitar amplifier, and by golly, they jumped on that train - - big time! What ensued is something of a novelty, though well-rooted in terms of functionality. All things considered, one might begin to wonder a bit about a person who would drop $200 on a what I would term as conversation piece, more or less.

Hottie starts out with a vintage American toaster housing into which they install solid state amplifier circuitry, a 6" speaker (Jensen MOD), and a line out (*to drive an external cab). If anything, it's an ingenius idea, and most certainly from the aspect of saving those classic American toaster chassis from the landfill. But the real question - - how does an amplifier in a toaster sound? Actually, not as bad as one might think. Here's a You.Tube link to Hottie's Guitar World demo video.

My take: the line-out sound ain't half-bad, in kind of a C.C. DeVille (Poison) meets Joey French (Twisted Sister) kind of way. The toaster-only tone . . . eh, not so good.

Anyway you slice it (*man, I just kill myself), Hottie's toaster amp breaks new ground in the world of appliance-based music gear. One thing's for certain: breakfast will never be the same!! - - J.

Loud Magnetic

While browsing the 'web the other day, I came across an interesting tidbit Metallica's latest release "Death Magnetic". Seems that fans think the album's "too loud". Yes - you heard me right. Metallica fans saying that something is too loud.

Having developed some understanding of the processes of recording over the past few years, I can relate to the physical aspect of sheer volume gobbling up some of a song's fidelity. Hard rock bands, in general, have been amping up their initial mixes for years - and the results haven't always been pretty. However, when fans of a high profile act like Metallica start meowing their laments about an album's sound mix / fidelity, there may be a reason to take notice. Or better yet . . . post an online petition requesting of the band that they re-mix the album. Statistics indicate over 16,000 fans have now digitally "signed" the petition, meaning that its not just an isolated issue with a handful of fans.

In response, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich is quick to point out that, "there's nothing wrong with the sound quality". And I think he may have a point. Ultimately, my question is this: just when did Metallica fans decide that their armchair music production abilities actually mattered in the bigger scheme of things? Or better yet - that a musical juggernaut like Metallica actually cared what they thought. Really folks, you don't spend (25) years of your life playing speed-metal (*the first (7) or (8) at shitty, smoky, puke-filled, hole-in-the-wall clubs in Podunk, USA), to have to listen to wanna-be record producers tell you how to mix a fuckin' album.

Although I'm not a staunch Metallica fan, I've always been impressed with their approach to music. As in, "we do it OUR way". In the circle of metal culture, few bands have flown as close to the fire as Metallica has. So much so, that one might go as far as saying that they were/are the Led Zeppelin of their generation. Really. Think about it. In metal, who's bigger?

I don't expect that Metallica will cave into populous demands and re-mix "Death Magnetic". I will, however, enjoy reading about it. - - J.

More on the internet:

Friday, November 7, 2008

Somewhere Over The Rainbow . . .

There's an old saying about rainbows - - you chase enough of them, eventually you'll come across a pot of gold. For young Dorothy Gale, the "treasure" at the end of her rainbow was returning to her Kansas home. Standing in her way - a wicked witch, a crazy wizard, flying monkeys, and lions, tigers, and bears - - OH NO!

These days, the search for "true" vintage gear is akin to a trip through Oz - wrought with danger at every turn, and usually minus the magical part where you actually find something incredibly cool. Friend and String Bean Music proprietor Phil Feser recently found himself the exception to that rule by his acquisition of two sparkling examples of vintage Fender amplification: a 1953 wide-panel Deluxe and a 1958 Deluxe. The circumstances by which these grizzled, Fullerton-made warriors came back into the fold remain classfied, and respectfully so. However, once you plug plug in - and behold the pristine timbres of fifty years passed - you soon realize that the real story is less about the find, and all about the tone.

Written words do little justice in describing the auditory nirvana of a vintage Fender amp, and most especially when you're standing face to face with it. Besides the thrill of seeing and hearing the genuine article, one is instantly struck with a deep respect for the humble simplicity of the design. Modern-day manufacturers still use the same circuitry for their own products, hoping to capture even a smidge of that elusive vintage mojo.

Driving home the "work horse" persona of these two amps were several make-shift "modifications". The '53 sported a kitschy, but effective floral upholstery grille cover; and the '58 had been spray-painted (*yes, I said spray-painted) gold; its handle - wrapped lovingly with several layers of cloth athletic tape (hopefully I got those mods on the right amps). Looking at the two side-by-side evokes some interesting thoughts, particularly those of modern-day collectors - staring in disbelief at the undoubtedly primitive customization efforts. But there is a certain charm to vintage gear that has met a similar fate - mostly in the fact that they were looked upon as musical "tools", and not as potential museum pieces. And as any good Tin Woodsman will tell you - what really matters is the heart that beats inside of it.

Armed with a sassy new ESP Vintage Plus Strat, Phil brought these gems to life. Running both in stereo with a *new* DigiTech Hardwire Stereo Reverb pedal, the tone hung ever-so-thickly in the air. Tone that only comes as the result of having 50+ years of electricity run through it; of components being exposed to decades of heat, humidity, and gradual wear; and of generations of legendary music being projected through their sturdy chassis. This, my friends, is the true definintion of vintage; the end of the tonal rainbow. Treasure to hear and behold.

I, too, was fortunate enough to savor the pleasure of playing through these two amps (*on the same, buttery-smooth ESP Strat), and I smiled that big, wide Jon Nelson smile as those lovely vintage timbres tickled my ears. Yes indeed, there's no place like tone. - - J.

Hirsute it on the X

Thought I'd drop this little blurb in behind the ZZ Top concert review.

This past July, that Lil' ol' Band from Texas signed onto American Recordings, most likely with the hope of re-tooling their somewhat stagnant studio presence of the past decade or so. If you are not familiar with American, its headed by none other than uber-producer Rick Rubin - who like the ZZ boys, sports a solid mass of chin shrubbery.

Most recently, Rubin played an integral role in revitalizing the career of 70's pop icon Neil Diamond, and prior to that, produced a legendary trio of releases with the late Johnny Cash. Rubin's production credits have crossed many genres - from rap to alternative, country to metal, and everything in-between.

One of the trademarks of Rubin-produced sound is his innate ability to reduce music to its "purest essence"; to strip down the layers of un-needed production hoodoo - and look directly into the soul of the artist(s) and their music. This, I think, will bide well for ZZ and their forthcoming release, as most of their recent material has lacked some of the bare-knuckled bravado present on classic releases such as "Tres Hombres" and "Deguello".

The Top's most recent studio effort "Mescalero" (2003) isn't totally devoid of an attractive hook or two. But stacked up against their early to mid 70's catalog, it's like a lonely AMC Gremlin sitting in the back of a lot full of '57 Chevys. Easy not to notice.

Some of Rubin's more notable rock production gigs include work with AC~DC (Ballbreaker); Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (Echo); the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Blood Sugar Sex Majik, Californication, Stadium Arcadium); Audioslave (Audioslave, Out Of Exile); Jakob Dylan (Seeing Things); and last but not least, Metallica (Death Magnetic). Did I mention that he's also worked with that politically-charged trio of country goodness - aka the Dixie Chicks . . . of which his efforts garnered three Grammy Awards. Yeah - didn't impress me either.

Having shot through a circuit of solid summer and fall performances, The Rev. & Co. hopefully have their chops honed to gritty perfection - and are primed and ready to hit the studio with their surfer foot gas pedal to the floorboard. Rumor has it that the upcoming release will meld elements of their classic 70's style / tone with the pop sensibility and hooky-ness of the Eliminator-era material. Which to me sounds like some good, old-fashioned bump n' grind - ZZ style. A how, how, how . . . J.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Blow Your Top . . .

Tone Farmer Joe Austin recently had the good fortune of catching that 'Little 'Ol Band From Texas live at a standing room only Grand Forks tilt. And not in some boomy, over-sized machine shed, mind you - - but at the acoustically delicious Chester Fritz Auditorium!! My oh my, those tones must've been sweeter n' a heapin' helpin' of smoky, down-home BBQ!! Joe was kind enough to pen a review for us, and it goes sumthin' like this . . .

On Saturday, October 18th, the Chester Fritz Auditorium on the UND Campus had the distinct privilege of having the legendary rock band ZZ TOP entertain the good folks of Grand Forks! When I heard that the Fritz would be the select venue (ZZ TOP is playing smaller, more intimate venue to give the fans an "in your face" feel!) for this concert, I began telling people that they were in for a treat. I also enthusiastically reminded them that a band the caliber of ZZ TOP could easily chose to play the Ralph Englestad Arena, The Alerus, or even the Fargodome. Yet, they graciously chose the 2,000 seat Chester Fritz Auditorium. And for that, we, and especially the town of GF should be extremely grateful!

The show started at 8:00 with an Atlanta Ga band, Blackberry Smoke opening. Out of all the opening acts I have recently seen, this one is one the better ones. A simple four piece band, Blackberry Smoke played a well-received 45 minute set that showcased their unique sound blending several classic rock and country rock bands such as the Black Crowes and Lynyrd Skynyrd, yet forging a style all their own. My favorite part of the set was watching guitarist Paul Jackson play some sweet looking and sounding Les Pauls. In fact, as I watched him closely, I swear he looked more and more like a young Gary Rossington.

After a brief intermission, ZZ TOP took the stage to thundering and deafening applause. The tres Hombres got in their positions and proceeded to rip into "Got Me Under Pressure", followed by "Waiting For the Bus" and "Jesus Just Left Chicago". After this three song opening, Guitarist Billy Gibbons address the crowd telling them how glad they were to be in North Dakota and this tour was designed to be more in your face for them. He also mentioned that they would be playing more bluesier, obscured tunes than the ones that got lots of MTV airplay. They didn't disappoint. Several great album tracks were performed such as "Goin' Down to Mexico" from 1971's First Album, "Just Got Paid" from 1972's Rio Grand Mud, and a great version of "Hey Joe" by the one and only Jimi Hendrix. This part of the show, by far, was my favorite. I've always preferred the material where it's just the power trio w/o the synthesizers and Billy Gibbons can just get down and dirty with his guitar work. Which also explains why I prefer the 1977 release of "The Best of ZZ Top" versus 1992's "Greatest Hits.

Of course, ZZ Top did it's best to please everybody and played their most popular hits towards the middle and end of the set including "Cheap Sunglasses" and the Eliminator trilogy "Gimme All Your Lovin", "Sharp Dressed Man", and "Legs". By this time the crowd was really on it's feet and wanted more. ZZ Top obliged and delivered ass-kicking versions of La Grange and Tush for their encore.

Bottom line, ZZ Top delivered the goods. And I would highly recommend all fans of good quality blues drenched, classic rock, and in your face music to go see ZZ TOP when they come to a small venue near your town. It's not every day, that bands like these decide to go the smaller route. So when they do, be sure to get off your butt and go see them. You'll be glad you did! - - by Joe Austin

Also - be sure to visit the following websites for more band-related information:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Hard To Handle

As one might imagine, I was excited to see Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson and newly minted foil Luther Dickinson on the cover of July's Guitar Player Magazine. Having had a full (3) months to absorb their latest release Warpaint, and digging it quite a bit, I was very interested in what Rich and Luther had to say about the guitars / gear they used.

That is, until I read this: "A good tone will make your whole body tingle with energy," says Rich Robinson, "and I think the way many guitarists are using digital technology has destroyed that."

Wow. Not even a paragraph into the feature, and here comes a well-aimed diss at guitarists using digital technology. Being a player who has readily embraced the idea of 1's and O's in relation to his own pursuits, Rich's somewhat cynical view didn't sit too well with me.

For starters, let us examine Mr. Robinson's current state of affairs in regards to "real" gear: a home studio crammed full of top-shelf vintage equipment; an ever-expanding network of legendary luthiers and analog amp gurus eager to custom build any guitar / amp he so desires; and a nearly unlimited supply of funds to support his tingly, mind-expanding quest for tonal perfection. And lest we forget - access to the finest recording facilities in the world. Yes indeed, as far as tone is concerned, Mr. Robinson hasn't ventured too far out of the "land of milk and honey" - - if at all. Sort of like the Kennedys bitching about the quality of food at McDonald's.

In comparison to the opinionated Mr. Robinson, the common player knows little of such frivolties - - being bound to more responsible pursuits than the "tingling of one's engergy." I can, however, personally attest to experiencing "tingling" sensations when playing through digital equipment - - although I have not compared these sensations to those achieved when using my '68 Super Reverb, Classic 30, or any of my other tube-based amplifiers. Perhaps it might be a good idea for a future Tone Farm feature? No matter how you choose to look at it, I find it a bit jaded for anyone, much less a prominent rock guitarist, to dismiss digital technology as "tone-less" destroyers of musical energy. It's simply not so.

Delving further in, one might also ponder the following questions: "Is the music-making and / or recording process somehow undermined if it's not analog." Or, "is one's playing less inspired because the sound is being created / processed digitally?" I would suppose that certain types of players could be more / less inspired - depending on the type of gear they play. However, this supposition should also reflect the contingent of players who are inspired by, or actually prefer digitally-rendered tone to analog / tube-based tone. To me, what it boils down to is this: if the song is good, and the playing kicks ass, how it came to be is irrelevant.

Here's another small, but tasty morsel of information: ALL of the Black Crowes' new album was recorded using M-Audio's Pro-Tools - a DIGITAL computer recording program!! Imagine that. In a world teeming with vintage Neve and Studer analog consoles - any of which would be at the Black Crowe's instant disposal - - they recorded the album using *ahem* . . . Pro Tools.

Today's gear manufacturers have done a fantastic job of leveling the playing field between preening analog wind-bags and the average joe player - and most especially with digital technology. As I see it, having access to something that tone-wise sounds reasonably close to, or has some of the playing nuances of a decent Fender or Marshall amp - I absolutely can't see anything wrong with that.

So, to all of the tone "purists"- please feel welcome to obsess about crap like amp sag, tube degradation, point-to-point, and cone wear all you want - digital / modeling technology is here to stay. Myself and a gazillion other players will make damn sure of it.

Now that I've ranted to my heart's content, I think I'll saunter into the jam room, crank up my PODxt, dial in a nice over-driven Fender Tweed - and play some Black Crowes. Damn you, digital technology. Damn you! - - J.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Goodbye Mr. Crudfinger

I honestly don't know how I forgot to include this exceptional product in my "Small Change . . . Big Tone" post - - but I did.

I was introduced to Kyser's Dr. Stringfellow Guitar String Cleaner & Conditioner by Brakin' Records solo recording artist & good friend Craig Schulte. Being a performing musician on budget, and not having the lettuce to re-string his axes with new strings each and every nite, Dr. Stringfellow String Conditioner was Craig's answer to preserving that “freshly re-strung” tone, as well as significantly extending string life.

About the cost of a new set of strings, a bottle of Dr. Stringfellow will last for months – maybe even years (*depending on how many guitars you have.) Applied with a soft, lint-free cloth, it removes all of the tone-robbing oils and skin crud left over from regular playing, leaving in its place a snappy, vibrant, and re-vitalized guitar string. Bravo!

Dr. Stringfellow has been a integral part of my regular guitar maintenance regimen for over (13) years, and thus comes highly recommended. - - J.

Guns n' Delusions

Some recent web-browsing uncovered another wave of “rumblings” regarding Guns n’ Roses long-fabled studio release Chinese Democracy. Apparently, the album is done (???), and the powers that be are now haggling over royalties, distribution rights, and the omnipresent marketing salvo that is typical to high-profile releases.

Having heard the whole convoluted story line countless times over the past fourteen years (*yes, I said (14) years), I can only imagine what real G n’ R fans are thinking. Will this be “the one”? Will it actually happen? Will they tour behind it? Will Axl be sporting his American flag spandex shorts or his kilt? Better yet - will he self-destruct mid-tour? (*even money says he does!!) And the question of all questions: will it spawn a reunion tour with all of the original members? So many questions . . . so few answers.

Looking back, there’s no getting around the fact that in their heyday, G n’ R was truly a force to be reckoned with. Style-wise - they had it all: the chemical-powered raunchiness of Get Your Wings-era Aerosmith; the punk-ish, shotgun delivery of vintage Ramones; epic, Zeppelin-esque songwriting abilities; the tatoo’ed, bad-boy gaffe; and perhaps best of all, a Les Paul-wielding, Marshall-powered juggernaut of a guitar player who called himself Slash. Stir that drink with an ample dose of hair-trigger egos, add in an insatiable appetite for anarchy – and you have yourself an enticing, but extremely dangerous rock n’ roll cocktail. Indeed, the stuff of legend.

Sadly, the same things that contributed to their success were also harbingers of their eventual demise. Fame often causes individuals to lose touch with reality, and in the case of Axl Rose, it was a very plausible explanation. As put so aptly by fellow Tone Farm contributor James Reetz, “the difference between a great band and a legendary band may be tied to the neurotic nature of the lead singer (VH, Motley Crue, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, STP / Velvet Revolver, Audioslave / Rage Against The Machine ...) I'm sure it takes an enormous amount of chemistry to make something that really kills, but at the same time - that chemistry is too volatile to control for long. The greatest ones are destined to split.” Rock n’ roll Zen, my friends.

However you choose to view the news, you can color me uninterested. The music industry hype machine has long been a sore spot in my book, and the G n’ R situation only adds fuel to that fire. Having weathered similar disappointment with KISS’ Psycho Circus (*which publicity whore Gene Simmons had the gall to compare to the band's seminal, multi-platinum smash Destroyer), I could really care less as to whether or not the much bally-hoo'd Chinese Democracy ever sees the light of day.

My point of this whole bit: fuck Guns n’ Roses. Go out and support your local music scene. Support independent artists / musicians whenever and however you can. There’s a wealth of amazing talent to be found on online sites like Our Stage, Acid Planet (*linked to the right under Back Forty), or any number of web destinations that feature independent artists. If you know of others, by all means, tell us about them. It's about time we give the music / radio industry the collective finger they so rightfully deserve! - - J.

Undisputed Tone

The Fender Champ is an amplifier that can trace its roots back to the earliest days of amplified guitar. Legions of aspiring players and guitar greats have employed its no-nonsense Class A tone in everything from garage practice to hi-end studio work. Seeking to capitalize on that formula once again, Fender has re-issued the venerable Champ in the form of the Super Champ XD.

Unlike the Champs of old, the SCXD boasts several new "twists" in the way of (16) digital "voicings" (Channel 2) and (5) digital effects. Oh yes, Fender is proudly waving the “all-tube-powered” flag above their Vintage Modern line - which essentially is true; they are, in fact, all-tube powered. However, Fender does employ some digital sleight of hand in both of their XD models (Super Champ / Vibro Champ), making them "hybrid animals" of sorts (*mainly digital voicing and effects). This is not a bad thing at all - actually quite to the contrary. The nod to digital obviously has some Fender purists growling their obligatory curses (they’re an extremely tough crowd to please) - but budget-conscious bottom-feeders like myself will enjoy the SCXD’s dual channels, wealth of usable tones, and all-around tubey deliciousness (*thanks to two 6V6's and one 12AX7.)

Where the Champ's voicing channel covers a broad spectrum of tones - the amp's first channel is devoted solely to a single elixir: the classic Blackface clean tone. Truth be known, if all the SCXD had was this one channel, it'd still be worth the money. Silky, glass-like timbres purr effortlessly from every nook and cranny of a Stratocaster. The twangly rumble of a driven Tele is but a few quick top-hat knob twists away. Pedals also meld beautifully with Ch. 1, making the SCXD's optional foot-switch all but a necessity. That is - if you can find one to buy.

Channel 2 holds (16) different “voicings” – (6) of which are based on vintage Fender tones (Tweed, Blackface); and another on the Hot Rod series. Other tones include (2) Marshall settings; a Vox; a nicely-done "boutique" (*which I'm guessing is a Mesa-Boogie); and (2) clean Fender amps - a Jazz King and Acoustasonic. The tweakability for each is pretty straight-forward, and all are reasonable incarnations of the real thing. As one would expect, the Fender tones are the best, with the "boutique" not too far behind.

Having owned an all-solid-state Cyber Champ a few years ago, the “voiced” channels held some familiarity in regards to tone and response. The SCXD’s all-tube power section lends a bit more authenticity to them, however, and provides the player with the unmistakable touch and feel found only in the analog realm.

Like the voiced channel, Ch. 1 can be sculpted further with the amp's treble, bass, and onboard effects. Gain on Ch.1 is achieved the old fashioned way - - i.e. cranking it up, and letting the tubes saturate. The resulting effect is lovely, even if a bit "tethered" by the amp’s 10" speaker and smaller cabinet.

Amongst the throngs of vintage, low-watt knock-offs and fluffed-up boutique offerings saturating the gear market these days - the Champ still remains a American rock n' roll original. The SXCD continues this storied tradition with great usable tones all over the dial; a warm, organic tube feel; a retro-cool vintage aesthetic; and a total kick to play. In short - everything you'd expect from a great Fender tube amp. At $299, it’s an extremely hard deal to pass up.

Next – SCXD Pt. II – Tale of the Tape - - J.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Old Is New . . .

As many of you know, hard rock & metal both are at the headwaters of my own musical style. This past summer, four of my favorite hard rock bands from the 1980's released new albums: Motley Crue; Def Leppard; Whitesnake; and Judas Priest. Having now rocked these CD's through the summer, I thought it'd be fun to kick 'em into the mix here at the Tone Farm, in the hopes that they might also re-charge your engines - as they did mine.

Starting things off is a double-wallop featuring none other than the Kings of 80's glam metal, the one and only Motley Crue. Penning the review for Saints of Los Angeles, his first for the Tone Farm, is my friend and life-long Crue fan James Reetz. Over the past nine or so years, James has introduced me to a number of very "interesting" bands - many of which are in the darker, more industrial vein of hard rock. Let me just say that there are some very cool things happening tone-wise in this somewhat "unchartered" territory of rock music. Seeing also that Mr. Reetz' writing skills may be under-utilized, I may tap him again later this fall for a review of the latest Clutch CD, which in my honest opinion, has some of the most amazingingly creative hard rock guitar work I've heard in years.

In honor of "Public Enemy #1" being the very first song I learned front-to-back on guitar (*sigh* - seems like yesterday), I thought I'd write a bit about the man behind those searing licks - lead guitarist Mick Mars. Say what you want about Mars - if anything, he has endured 20+ years of reckless, rock n' roll abandon very gracefully - and continues to forge his craft in a most convincing fashion. Tone-wise, I don't think I've heard a better live hard rock guitar sound than what he laid down on the Crue's "Carnival of Sins" concert DVD.

So break out the Aqua Net and Schlitz Malt Liquor 16 oz. pounders - - it's time to get CRAAAZZZEEEEE!! - - J.

Say Your Prayers . . .

So, when word first hit the street that Motley Crue was putting the finishing touches on a new studio album (Saints of Los Angeles), I was psyched to say the least. Then, my buddy, the creator of this blog here, asks me to throw down a review . . . super psyched. I told him right then and there that it would be difficult to write an unbiased review of the new album because Motley has been my favorite band since 1981. He simply replied that he wasn't expecting one.

I decided to wait on the review until I had gone to see them live in Milwaukee, WI. I thought that hearing some of the new tunes live would give the review some added credibility since Motley has always outdone themselves on stage. The Crue played only (2) new songs - the title track and Mutherf***er of the Year. By the time the concert rolled around, I was predictably done with the title track. S.O.L.A. is a good single, but I've always been drawn to Crue's non-radio stuff. I'll give them this though, it was pretty cool having the lead singers from all the opening bands joining Vince for the chorus (et al "Cruefest"). MF'er OTY ripped live. Explosions on stage and a live crowd have a way of doing that to a song.

Enough about the show. What do I think of the Crue's first album of all-new material in (8) years? In a word . . . SOLID! It's everything the die-hard Crue fan wants - with just enough newness to grab the youth of the world by the hair and thrown them into the pit. I hope to God that some of these songs make it to radio so that people will remember what rock is.

I tend to judge Motley albums by the strength of performances by Vince Neil (vocals) and Mick Mars (lead guitar). I do so because I know that Tommy Lee (drums) and Nikki Sixx (bass) are always going to kick major ass. Tommy and Nikki did not disappoint on this record. Nikki proves that the old man can still rock and provide us with world class lyrics (This ain't a love song, it's just a f**k song). That's ROCK! Tommy? Well, Tommy's just Tommy. Back in the sack with Pam Anderson and laying down killer beats. Vince's vocals are as good or better than any since Shout at the Devil. His effort on "Just Another Psycho" may be his best since he got clean. The best part about this record though, is the emergence of Mick Mars. Yes, I said emergence. Everyone knows of Mick's ability to create and lay down tasty, memorable licks for the choruses of Nikki's songs, but what you may not know is how good he can be when he breaks off a solo. And to make things even better, on a few tunes, the boys let Nikki carry the main riff through the 3rd verse so that Mick can freestyle from his solo to the end. Tremendous!

The album starts with a spoken intro, which I think was a mistake. Any Crue fan will inevitably compare it to "In the Beginning" from Shout at the Devil. Tough to beat that. S.O.L.A. has everything from hard rock blues (White Trash Circus) to punk (Welcome to the Machine) to power ballad (The Animal in Me). It's retrospective (Down at the Whiskey) and introspective (What's it Gonna Take). And of course, there are plenty of good old fashioned ass kickers. The best song on the record, IMO, is "Chicks = Trouble". It comes together so well. All-in-all . . . classic Crue! - - by James Reetz

God of War

Mention the name Mick Mars in a casual discussion about guitars / tone, and you're likely to draw some raised eyebrows. Indeed, the self-proclaimed "extra-terrestrial" guitarst for Motley Crue certainly does not fit the stereotypical role of "guitar god" - - even though his guitar credentials are as lengthy as his drummer's *ahem* - - - well, we won't go there. Unlike many of of the 1980's metal-playing contemporaries whose legacy has been linked mostly to spandex and excessive behaviour, Mars has quietly (*an unlikely metaphor when describing anything Motley Crue) plied his craft for (27) years. Brothers & sisters, let me tell you, you don't get by that long in the rock n' roll biz without being able to throw down some kick-a$$ licks. Or better yet - without killer tone.

When the Crue launched themselves head-first into the 80's music scene, their sound was raw and unpolished. Mars' early 80's guitar sound was equal to task - edgy, surgical, over-driven. As the band began to find its own voice, his tone became more evolved - larger, fuller, more menacing. By the time the Dr. Feelgood album was released, Mars' guitar was the band's calling card - - huge, hooky riffs; giant walls of tube-driven vintage Marshalls; crescendos of dive-bombing whammy-bar madness. Set to Sixx / Lee's howitzer-class rhythm section and Neil's slinking, caterwaul vocals - - the Crue became the shiny, pouncing animal hood ornament on glam metal's speeding sports car. Until, of course, it crashed at high speed into a tree called grunge rock.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Mars' "horror-film-meets-voodoo-witchdoctor" persona - something that not only is a perfect fit in the Crue "schtick" - it compliments his playing style perfectly. Eyes peering eerily from under a skull-and-crossbone'd Alice In Wonderland top hat, Mick seems most content to let his bandmates flaunt and flounce about the stage, while his tatooed fingers strangle shrieking notes and chords from the neck of a well-thrashed early 70's Stratocaster. He'll flash the occasional Mona Lisa-like grin - sublime . . . nonchalant. Players who kick-ass know it - and most definitely, Mars knows it.

Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, in addition to various chemical afflictions, a degenerative bone disease has begun to take its cruel toll upon Mars' already road-worn body - - something which he refers to as an "inconvenience". But fate often works in strange ways, as his slight gait and hunched posture lend a somewhat creepy authenticity to the Crue's "carnival-gone-awry" imagery.

From the raucous, train-wreck of mayhem called Too Fast For Love, to the blunt-edged weaponry of 2008's Saints of Los Angeles, Mars' skull-crushing licks have always remained front-and-center in the band's overall sound. I was trying to think of another 80's metal band whose sound / tone so beautifully encompassed their genre, and I was left with only Whitesnake, Judas Priest and the Scorpions. Heavy-hitters, indeed.

Fast forward to 2008. A re-united Crue is once again pillaging its way across the U.S. / Canada - celebrating two decades of rock n' roll excess with thousands upon thousands of their die-hard fans. Touring in support of their phenomenal Saints of Los Angeles, Mars & Co. have once again reclaimed their thrones atop the hard rock heap. Louder. Hotter. Heavier. More irreverent.

Whatever it is Mick and Co. are on these days - it's working. My only hope is that they'll send some if it Aerosmith's way. Bottom's up! - - J.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Science Meets Tone . . .

I'm constantly amazed at the variety of guitar / guitar-related items on Ebay. About a month or so ago, I was perusing the site for a pair of replacement tubes for my newly-acquired Fender Super Champ XD. While the stock valves sounded pretty good, overall, I couldn't help but think that a better set would improve things in the tone dept. Call it a hunch. Anyways . . .

During my search for a set of 6V6 tubes, I came across a rather interesting listing from a company called Cryoset. If the para-scientific company name doesn't arouse your curiosity, then maybe this idea will: frozen vacuum tubes. Yup. You heard me correctly.

Through a highly specialized process, the tubes are cryogenically treated, which apparently, improves both the strength and sonic capabilities of the tube. While the whole idea is very plausible, and certainly, rooted firmly in its scientific claims - - it seems just a bit on the Dr. Frankenstein line of thinking - or at least to me it is. I can just picture it now - some guy in a white lab coat, pulling a tray of treated tubes out of the cryo-freezer. As a light, misty fog waftes above his creation, he grins, and then erupts in an evil, maniacal laugh, "from the icy caverns of Siberia, I give you - TONE! Ha ha hahahahhahahahaaaaa!!!"

One might think that all of this whiz-bang technology would cost an arm and a leg - - but in fact, it doesn't. After checking Ebay, as well as a few other sites for the same tubes (Electro-Harmonix 6V6GT), the Cryoset tubes were very competitively priced - and in some cases, cheaper than non-treated tubes.

Eventually, I couldn't help but succumb to the icy temptation of "grail tone", and purchased a pair of the Cryoset tubes to try out myself. Once my new Eminence Ragin' Cajun speaker arrives, I plan on doing a bit of mod work to my Super Champ, with a full-on A/B review to follow. - - J.

Rollin' with the Devil . . .

Apparently, the dubious title of "Arena Rock Gods" does not necessarily disqualify any band from participating in sappy publicity schtick. This snap of the original Van Halen line-up in full disco-era roller garb drew a healthy chuckle from me, and most certainly the obligatory, "what WERE they thinking?" - - J.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Brother Mule

I remember a number of years ago when people would ask me who my favorite new guitar player was, and telling them, "that's easy - Warren Haynes." That was the early / mid 90's, when he was mostly known as "the other guitarist in the Allman Brothers Band", or as the frontman of the "up-and-coming" power trio called Gov't Mule. My, how times have changed.

As one might expect, a wide smile spread across my face when I read Guitar Player's May 2007 issue, and saw that Warren had garnered a lion's share of the hardware in ther annual Reader's Choice Awards survey. Indeed, a most deserving tribute to a fine guitarist, musician, and vocalist. I might also add that it's quite refreshing to see a player of Haynes' style /caliber achieving success the old-fashioned way - by letting his music do the talking. Certainly, it's not the norm amidst the image-conscious, mass-marketed, genre-based pablum the recording industry has been spoon-feeding us for the last twenty years or so (*thank heavens for XM!)

Although the "secret" might now just be fully surfacing, fans and players "in the know" have reveled in Haynes' creative genius for many years. From the searing slidework / solos that are a mainstay of the Allman Brothers' timeless sound, to the incendiary playing and vocal work in Gov't Mule, to the occasional sideman jaunts with The Dead, Phil Lesch & Friends, and the Derek Trucks Band (to name just a few), to writing / playing on a myriad of albums for high profile artists of all musical genres - Warren completely exemplifies the "workhorse" attitude of his band's own namesake. Incessant touring, an honest, blue-collar style; stop-you-in-your-tracks guitar tone; and a reputation as a generous and highly-capable collaborator have made him one of most widely respected and sought-after guitarists in today's music scene. Personally, I couldn't be happier, because as fans - we are truly the beneficiaries.

I've had the good fortune of seeing Warren perform many times, and can only say that his playing and singing have left the hairs on the back of my neck standing straight on end on more than one occasion. If you haven't seen Mr. Haynes live - well, brothers and sisters, now is the time. This is what kick-ass guitar playing / music is all about. - - J.

The Tao of Dave . . .

I came across this little bit while sorting through my old issues of Esquire, and thought it was worth including on Tone Farm. TIP: Double-click the photo, and it will enlarge in a separate window. - J

Marshall Law . . .

Let's face it - when it comes to kick-ass rock n' roll tone, a Marshall tube amplifier is hard to beat. Combos, stacks - whatever. From the day I held my very first guitar in my hands, my dream of a owning a Marshall amp has never really subsided. Unfortunately, that dream is quickly dashed by the cost / practicality of owning one - two giant hurdles that I can't ever seem to get over (*married Tone Farmers - interpret that however you like.) Thanks the advent of modern modeling technology, recreational players like myself are able to enjoy a little "taste" of the Marshall elixir via a number of avenues. One of the best that I've found, so far, is the Tech 21 British Character pedal.

Having played a number of modelers over the past 4-5 years (Fender Cyber Twin, Vox Valvetronix, L6 PODxt), I can definitely say that Marshall amplifiers are the hardest amps to model accurately. The complex order of harmonics, throaty timbre, and high-gain capabilities seem to leave most emulations somewhere between barely marginal and moderately usable. Those familiar with the amplifier's lineage also know that finding the "sweet spot" of a Marshall amp often requires face-melting volume levels - - and digital modelers, traditionally, aren't the most capable in that sonic territory. Tech 21's analog-based modeling circuitry, however, seems to be much more adept at capturing the nuances and overdrive characteristics of Marshall amplifiers vs. what I've used in the digital realm. To my ear, it's a rounder, fuller, and more organic tonal interpretation. Understandably, there are traits of Marshall amplifiers that can only be achieved via fire-spitting tubes and sheer, physical volume levels - so trying to compare a $149 modeling pedal to an actual Marshall combo / stack is more or less an exercise in futility. This ain't the real thing, folks. However, I will say with a fair amount of confidence that in the modeling arena, you probably won't find a better, more "authentic" Marshall tone than the Brit.

There are plenty of reviews to be found on the internet, so, rather than bore you with all of the details, I'll cut right to the chase. T21 advertises that this pedal can cop the tonal guise of three primary amps: 1.) a Marshall Bluesbreaker combo (JTM-45); 2.) vintage JCM / Plexi series amps; and 3.) Modern Metalface / high-gain amps. The bottom line: this pedal does what it says it'll do - from the gutteral, bluesy grind of a JTM-45 combo, to the volumptuous, mid-range thunk of a JCM-800, to the searing, high-gain wallop of a modern-era Metalface - what's here smells and tastes like the real thing. The primary amp tones are accessed via the sweep of the pedal's rotary "character" knob, and can be further adjusted using the EQ (3) and gain (1) knobs. The sample settings T21 includes in the package provide an excellent base to work from, so right out of the box, you'll have a few "bullets" in your holster. Stops in-between the primary tone ranges can yield some interesting "hybrid" tones - so by all means, tweak & experiment. As an example, I was goofing around with the Brit one night using my 3TS Strat. To my surprise, I dialed in a very tasty, Bassman-esque Texas boogie tone in-between the Bluesbreaker and JCM ranges. Not quite as spanky as the classic SRV flavor - but every bit as tight and punchy, with a tad more growl. I wrote those settings down on the spot.

I would also mention that the character knob is extremely sensitive, meaning that minute adjustments have a fairly significant effect on the tone (*T21 states this same fact in the owners pamplet). This trait also holds true for the EQ, level, and gain controls - most especially the gain. Two o' clock is about as far as I'd want to take the gain for any of the amp models; from there on it's all but unusable (*at least for an old-school chap like myself).

Another great feature of the Character Series pedals is that each comes with a built-in speaker emulation, tailored to capture the "essence" of each model. For instance, on my T21 British pedal, the speaker emulation has been modeled after a Celestion Greenback. The only drawback here is that the speaker sim can't be turned off - it's on all the time. For me, this is not a big issue - - but for the Steely Dan studio-set, it may present a work-around situation. At any rate - - the speaker simulation adds yet another dimension to the each pedal's signature tones, and to my ears - a very good one.

Over the past two months, I've had ample opportunity to play the pedal in all of its primary use configurations: 1.) A stand-alone pre-amp - here I'm running the pedal directly into a Tech 21 Power Engine (*basically a powered, flat-response monitor housed in a guitar cabinet; a highly-effective tool for modelers); 2.) A front-end pedal - While it can be used like a traditional pedal, it's most effective running through an effects loop, where its tone won't be "colored" by pre-amp processing; and 3.) A line-direct pre-amp / recording device. The pedal performed admirably in all configurations, though its line-direct feature has proven to be the most useful in my own recording / playing activities. A few of you might remember the tone sample I sent out a month or so ago for "Valley of the Kings" - one of my own originals. That was recorded line-direct, with nothing more than a light EQ and a bit of reverb added.

Overall, the Brit's "Marshall-ness" is quite impressive - a nice, fat bottom end; crunchy, agressive mid-order harmonics; and soaring high's for lead work. Everything you'd expect in a Marshall - - but without the mortgage. Bravo Tech 21!

If you'd like to hear some samples of the pedal in action, here's a few Box.Net links with clips. All were recorded direct through a Zoom MRS-8, with only light EQ'ing and reverb added. Samples #1 & #2 are a old jam favorites of mine; #3 & #4 are JN originals - in case you were wondering. Crank 'em up. - J.

  • Sample #1 - Greazy Texas groove (Plexi)
  • Sample #2 - Crunchy Aero riffage (JCM-800)
  • Sample #3 - Lynch / Satriani-inspired intrumental (Metalface - rhythm; Plexi - lead)
  • Sample #4 - Big hair; big tone (Metalface)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rig O' The Month - June 2008

June's Rig O' The Months come to us from the Eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland. Over the past few years, I've had the pleasure of corresponding to Mike O'Reilly, an acquaintance whom I became associated with a couple years back via The Fret.Net. If my memory serves me correctly, I believe I was name-dropping some of my favorite Canadian musical artists in a post reply, and Kim Mitchell and the Tragically Hip happened to come into the dialogue. An avid Canadian rock fan himself, Mike took a shine to that, and we soon exchanged several e-mails - each time finding out we had more and more in common: music, muscle cars, hockey, and of course, the social arts. As far as guitar playing is concerned, Mike's passion rests firmly in the Fender Camp, though when we'd exchanged e-mails late last fall, he was actively pursuing a vintage Marshall via a U.K. connection.

Last week, I received an e-mail from Mike, along with pics of some very delectible Fender thoroughbreds. In his own words:

"Thought I'd send this along ... a pic of the rig I'm currently gigging and using in the studio .. a 1964 Fender Bassman AA864, 1966 Fender Bassman cab loaded with original Jensen C12-NS, 1966 Fender VibroChamp. I run these through a Boss ME-10 digital multiple effects board in stereo. When mic'd either through the PA in stereo or in the studio this combonation is nothing short of aural masturbation. The Boss lets me also run either of the amps alone like an a-b box or in the aforementioned stereo. The digital reverb is very good and the chorus is the standard Boss . . . killer. Anyway - - maybe a candidate for "Reader's Rig of the Month" on TONE FARM."

No matter how you slice it, sixties-era anything from Fender rates very highly, esp. steeds of the Blackface bloodline. And yes, perhaps even as highly as the art of auditory self-pleasure . . . ;~) Thanks for sharing, Mike - and congratulations on being the Tone Farm's Rig O' The Month!! J.

P.S. - Be sure and "double-click" the photo for the full-sized, Fender-licious version!

The hotter . . . the better!

Every once in awhile, something comes at you from out of nowhere. Unexpectedly; and without explanation. Kind of like a long throw from the outfield - only, in this particular instance, it lacked the typically arcing trajectory that makes up for gravity’s pull. It was a laser shot - on a rope and deadly accurate. Such was my introduction to the music of the late Rory Gallagher

My typical workday always involves music, and in most cases, it’s the sublime drone of an XM Radio station in the background. On this particular day, the dial was set to the "Deep Tracks" station, which pulls heavily from the late 60’s classic / early 70’s power rock / avant garde catalog. Seemingly, in the middle of a rather "typical" set list, I hear the sound of an edgy, overdriven Stratocaster. Not "edgy" in terms of the tone being overly bright - - but in the sense of it being on the "edge" of an emotion. A raw, jagged nerve. Kind of like that feeling you get when you’re watching a scary movie . . . that split-second before a super-scary part. Anxious. Unnerving. That kind of edgy. I rose from my chair to inspect the XM display dial, curious as to the origin of this fantastic Fender sound.

The salvo of Stratocaster power chords at the beginning of "Walk on Hot Coals" relays immediate notice as to what will immediately transpire. This is no-holds-barred, full-tilt blues rock, delivered by players who understand the meaning and purpose of doing it well.

Another thing that struck me immediately about the mood of "Walk on Hot Coals" is its fusion of energy – a singular, allied, contiguous flow of musical passion. Certainly, Gallagher’s masterful Stratocaster work is at the striking point of the formation, and his playing blends a style that's borderline hard rock - yet with a respectful nod to both ethnic and blues roots. The arsenal of amazing tones that accompany his music serve faithfully and obediently - benchmarks of a highly-skilled player. But like any great guitarist, the end effect is indeed dependent on the sum of its parts. The powerful, decisive guitar chords of this song contrast beautifully against the Doors’ish bounce of Lou Martin’s electric piano. Gerry McAvoy (bass) and Ron D’ath (drums) are beautifully efficient as the band’s rhythm foundation, fully understanding their roles in the context of the song.

As the number unfolds, the band soon finds itself feeding its guitar player ample leash from which to explore. A glorious extended solo soon unfolds, and I find myself entranced; held captive to each note. Using a variety of masterfully executed techniques (string bends, staccato picking, on-the-fly p'up position changes), Gallagher weaves and winds the listener through the song – never stopping at one point long enough for you to catch your breath. Through this extended improv, I am struck by how Rory "feels" his way into a run or passage. Not as if he’s playing it, but almost like he’s following a path - - provided by the music itself - - though never quite sure where it’s going to go. Some might think that this is something that can be learned or practiced; to be turned on and off on a whim. Not so. This is a gift, and an extraordinary one at that. In simple terms, this is a guitarist searching for . . . and then . . . finding the very soul of a song. What he finds he communicates with you through his guitar. You, the listener - are left to bask warmly in the glow of its omnipresent emotion.

A crescendo of crunchy power chords soon alerts me to my work-bound reality, and it seemed to me as if I had been lost in a swirling array of Strat-o-luscious-ness for hours. I grin slyly, fully aware of the experience that just transpired. My only thought at that point: "Where do I get more of this?"

My collection of Rory Gallagher CD's has expanded considerably in the short period of two years, and includes the following releases: Rory Gallagher (1971); Deuce (1971); Live In Europe (1972); Irish Tour (1974); Against The Grain (1975); Calling Card (1976); and BBC Sessions (1999). I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any to guitarists and music fans alike, though I am a bit partial to the (2) 1971 studio releases from the standpoint of variety and performance. It goes without saying that both of Rory's live albums are essential listening - esp. for the guitar set.

GUITARIST: Rory Gallagher (all guitars, vocals)
BAND: Lou Martin (piano); Ron D'ath (drums); Gerry McAvoy (bass)
SONG: "Walk on Hot Coals"
ALBUM: Irish Tour

HIGHLIGHTS: Gallagher presents the listener with a stunning array of guitar techniques and tones – from roaring, overdriven Stratocaster; to beautiful acoustic balladry; to stinging steel guitar slide. Raw, gritty vocals narrate mile-deep, soulful renditions of original songs, blues standards, and an amazing cover of Tony Joe White’s "As A Crow Flies".

Monday, April 7, 2008

Tube be . . . or not tube be?

You may or may not know who Andrew Barta is . . . but as a guitar player, you probably should. Long before Line 6 entered the world of modeled, solid-state amplification - (7) years to be exact, Tech 21, Barta's NY-based company, introduced the SansAmp, which literally set the music and recording worlds on their collective ear.

Back in 1989, amp-modeling was pretty much undiscovered country. Yes, there were many companies designing / manufacturing effects - but none that could emulate the tonal characteristis of (3) highly sought-after tube amplifiers - - all packed snugly into a foot pedal! As if this wasn't a feat in and of itself, the SansAmp also pioneered the idea of line-direct recording - i.e. electronically facilitating the "effect" of microphone proximity in relation to the sound of the amplifier. In 1989, these were incredibly broad and defined strokes on a very large, but completely blank canvas. And the only artist holding a brush - Andrew Barta.

Nearly (20) years later, it's hard to name a major player in the burgeoning guitar retail market that doesn't have some type of modeling offering. The surprising thing here is that amongst all the Flash Gordon, whiz-bang techno candy currently out there - the Tech 21 SansAmp (*now marketed as that SansAmp GT-2) is still one of the best and the most reasonably priced.

While browsing the Sound OnS ound website, I came across an interesting 1996 interview with the Tech 21 founder. In the article, Mr. Barta spoke about some of the intricacies of the solid-state tube-emulating concept, as well as the physical and technical theories that came into play during the design process. One thing I found particularly interesting was that many of of the key tonal elements were rooted in very basic sound & electronic principles - things such as decay, clipping, phase inversion, and reverb.

So how does an article like this equate to the everyday player? Very simply - when applied to your own tone, having a basic understanding of key sound and electronic principles can lead to some pretty big things. Whether it be live sound, recorded sound, gear choices - whatever; knowing how things work, and how sound behaves has benefits all across the board.

If one were to judge by recent trends, it would appear that vintage tube technology has made a prolific return to prominence. In fact, so much so, that many high-profile players have all but written the epitaph for the solid-state amplifier. But the bell tolls not for ye', o' venerable purveyor of guitar tone. Solid state amplification is alive and well, and sounding better than ever. As a matter of fact, Andrew Barta & Tech 21 have a few new tricks up their sleeve. More on that one later. J.

Finishing School

I've always had an interest in the science of vintage guitars and gear, as many of those things often transcend themselves to other areas that can be vitally useful to my own playing, or gear.

I'd recently read an article in which Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) was trying to explain why his # 1 Les Paul (which he dubiously dubbed "Pearly Gates" ) has that sound. One of the things he'd mentioned in that particular article was the finish - which was something I hadn't heard mentioned before. Sure, I've heard / read other stories about some of the other things that vintage gear afficianados have claimed as the "magical element", including: the wood (old stand vs. new growth); vintage hardware (metallurgy anyone?); and some old-school wiring / electrical (different types of bobbins, cloth-insulated wiring, certain waxes, vintage pots / capacitors, etc.) Yes indeed - the pursuit of the "grail tone" leaves no stone unturned.

As I was exploring this very topic on the internet, I came actoss the following article, in which the author determined that the lacquer used on vintage guitars (i.e. non-synthetic, non-polyurethane) was a key element of its sound / tone. To further bolster his claim, he actually stripped down, and refinished a new guitar with an older type of lacquer finish. You can check this story out for yourself at the BYOB (Bring Your Own Battery) Website: The Effect Of Lacquer

This is but one of the tons of cool topics about vintage guitars / amps. If anyone else has links or resources to other vintage gear-related topics - let me know. J.

*NOTE: If you double-click on the photo of Billy G., it will enlarge. Then you can get a good look at the Rev's custom Rio Grande stack in the background! ;~)

Skin Deep

Fact: The world is filled with some incredibly UGLY guitars. Along with some incredibly lame, horribly designed, and and fantastically hilarious ones, too. Ladies & Gentlemen, I present to you:

The Guitar Site's Ugliest Guitars II

(*scroll down to the post, and click on the individual headers)

The Name Game

I used to think that my friend Darren had the market cornered on great band names. For the record, he has now been "officially" de-throned. Check out the links and see why:

To all the guys in "Orphan Clown Train" - maybe you should have waited for this post . . . ??!!! J.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Small change . . . BIG tone

Everyone is probably familiar with the saying, "you get what you pay for" (*and in the case of REO Speedwagon, "you get what you play for.") While that statement may hold true for a lot of things, budget-minded tone connoisseurs can still find a lot of great, incredibly affordable gear goodies & tweaks. Using $30 as a spending cap (*which if you think about it, isn't really all that much) - I came up with (6) items that will provide any player with immediate, tone-worthy benefits:

1.) Picks - Yeah, the good ol' plectrum. Ranging in cost from *free* to several dollars (fancy ones are probably more) - a pick can offer a player a number of different benefits. For example - softer picks can be used for a percussive strumming effect; harder picks help notes / chords ring true. Some picks even have special gripping material on them. Whatever and however you play - there's a pick made just for you. Try a bunch out, and see what you like - and still have plenty left-over for wings and beer.

2.) Strings - Like picks, they're a necessity. Most players stick with the same brands all the time - - you know, for "consistency" sake - rarely venturing outside the box. Earth to Mr. / Ms. Guitar Player - at $5 or less a pop, why not try out some different gauges & brands out. I recently picked up a set of Fender Pure Nickel 150L strings for my cream Strat, and was literally floored with their fat, juicy sound. The cost for that huge improvement in tone - $3.99 + tax.

3.) Set-up / intonation - For the gifted, do-it-yourself player - which most of us are not, a fresh set-up will provide an immediately noticeable tonal improvement, not to mention that your guitar will play like "buttah". Think of a set-up / intonation as the guitar equivalent of a trip to the chiropractor. Damage - $10 - $15; more if your axe is severely out of whack.

4.) Dont' get "floored" - While there's nothing wrong with setting your amp on the floor, getting it up off of the floor can do a number of things. Using a stand, with your amp properly angled, the "window" of sound can be directed at an optimum angle to your ear - thus enhancing what you're hearing from your amp (*not to mention your audience and / or band-mates.) It's certainly not rocket science by any means. Musician's Friend has a nice, combo-sized floor stand for right around $20 + shipping. A larger, more elaborate unit will, of course, run you a bit (or a LOT) more - depending on the bells and whistles.

5.) Plug-n-play - Take it from someone who has spent the better part of my playing career using cheap, crappy cables - a good cord makes a HUGE difference. Let me repeat that - a HUGE difference. A cleaner signal going to your amp = less hum / distortion. And that, my friends, equates to better tone. Cables come in all price ranges, with all kinds of features - and $25 - $30 should get you a pretty decent one.

6.) Tube into tone - Got yourself a tube amp, do ya'? Well, if you can plug in a blender to make a margarita, then you can swap out a vacuum tube. Easy as pie. Depending on what the tonal endeavors are for your amp, individual tubes can run you as little as $12 - $15 apiece. Although you might have to stretch your $30 budget out over a few months to get a full set (*some amps require (7) or (8) tubes), you can score a couple tubes here and there, and drop 'em all in when your collection is complete. After your swap is done, plug in, and savor all of the delicious, analog, fire-spitting* goodness.

So there you have it - (6) easy, cost-effective ways to tastier tone. Bon apetit'! J.

( * ) "Of Mice & Modelers" post - 1/11/08.

What was good then . . .

Ah yes . . . the good ol' days. Back in 1959, when this ad came out, it was OK for kids to snuggle up to Dad's Fender Twin, and enjoy enjoy some smooth, tweed guitar stylings at point-blank range. And lucky for Dad - the American Auditory Society was still (15) years from forming.

As you can about imagine - things like this have a tremendous influence on youngsters. Around '68, Little Suzie became Moonbeam, the Grateful Dead groupie, and lost what was left of her hearing attending shows over the course of the next 5-6 years. She's now a counselor at a homeless shelter, drawing from her experiences on the road. In her spare time, she tends to her organic garden, and weaves on her homemade loom.

Dad sold his Twin in the mid 70's to some British guy named Keith, who was in town for some sort of special event. Appartently, he'd shown up at the house in a stretch limo, and walked out of the car with a bottle of scotch in his hand. Now Dad wasn't one to be impressed with this sort of thing, and decided to teach the young man a lesson. Knowing that his prospective customer was fairly wealthy, he said he woudn't take a penny less than $150 for the amplifier. This Keith guy then hands him three crisp $100 bills, and says, "keep the change, mate."

Dad still has that bottle of scotch in the liquor cabinet, too. J.

NOTE: If you enjoy vintage guitar / gear ads, you can check out a few more of the Fender variety at
this link.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Launch sequence . . . engaged

Tuesday, March 11, 2008. The members of KISS are doing press appearances for a string of sold-out stadium dates in Australia, which kick off with a mega show in Melbourne later on that week. That same night, one of the men largely responsible for catapaulting the band into super-stardom - and now ex-lead guitarist, Ace Frehley, is roughly half-way through a string of concerts dotting various 'burgs and towns throughout the upper northern plains. To put it into yet another perspective - thousands upon thousands will be seeing KISS perform compared to the 750 or so (estimated) that will attend Frehley's Fargo show. Indeed, rock n' roll sometimes has a twisted way of extracting its dues, but though through the eyes of Ace Frehley - a small-venue show like this has the rosy glow of success. He's back - playing live to appreciative fans, and doing what he loves to do.

After saying a final (?) good-bye to his KISS bandmates in 2002, Frehely has largely been out of the spotlight. True, one might see this as a well-deserved rest, having toured the globe relentlessly with KISS for six consecutive years. A few select side projects popped up here and there between '02 and '06, though none would provide the notariety that the KISS reunion had. For a musician, four years is an eternity, and as one might expect - the extended hiatus had Frehley itching to get back. After spending the bulk of the last year and a half writing / recording, Frehley decided that the time was right to hit the road again - solo - for the first time in nearly two decades. For fans like myself, this was welcome news - not only from the opportunity to see Ace perform - but also that there was a forthcoming solo album in the works. So, when the date and venue (Fargo Theater) for the show were announced, there was absolutely no question that I would be in attendance.

Now the Fargo Theater is by no means a large facility. Or even a moderately-sized facility. It's small. Cozy, as a matter of fact. Wheras KISS' Aussie dates would provide most fans with a view of ant-sized blips on a stage in the distant horizon, or images on a pair of jumbo-trons - the Ace experience would be a full-throttle affair at gunpoint - the honest-to-goodness genuine article, front and center - delivering raunchy power chords that we could see, hear . . . and feel. Awwwwwwrrriiiiggghhhhttt! Onto the show . . . .

After obligatory pre-concert libations at the Empire Tavern, my posse' and I trekked down the block to the theater. The pre-concert "vibe" hung thickly in the air, and greeted us as soon as we set foot inside. As long as I've been going to shows, those first few minutes inside a venue are always some of the most exciting. You're getting amped up for the show, as are your fellow concert-goers. Everyone's in a great mood, talking about music, past shows, what's going to be the opening number, etc. Sort of like foreplay - but in a musical sense. Anyways - after grabbing a beer, we found our seats - which were off to the right of the stage (Ace's left) about ten rows back. The stage set is all business - a drum riser between two stacks of guitar / bass amps, and a simple-but-effective backdrop donned the Ace tour logo (*a sultry vixen straddling a rocket). The stage set-up strikes a chord with me - mostly because it's a far cry from the the mountains of gear being employed by Gene, Paul, and the two imposters "Down Under". As long as Ace was a part of KISS, he was their "rock n' roll conscience" - the voice of reason (or what could be constituted as "reason") in a sea of mass-marketed hype. "We're a rock n' roll band, and rock n' roll bands make music," he would say - indifferent to having his image on everything from lunch-boxes to bubble gum cards. Obviously, these days - things are a lot different in Ace Frehley's world, but I've always liked the fact that for him - it was about the music.

The up / down light cue from the light / sound crew soon had the crowd buzzing, and shortly thereafter, the opening band The Trews took the stage. I was immediately impressed by the substance of their groove - tight, crunchy, and very classic-rock. For those familiar with the now-defunct band Cry of Love, it's somewhat similiar - hooky, riffy guitar assemblages punctuated with a Bad Co. meets the Black Crowes style lyrical delivery, great vocals & harmonies, and a solid, no-nonsense backbeat. Listening to the first couple of songs, I immediately realize why the state of modern music is so fucked-up, and it's largely because radio stations won't play great new music from real rock n' roll bands like The Trews. Instead, we're either stuck with this American Idol bullshit, or the wearisome, format-based programming that rarely deviates from entirely-too-predictable "greatest hits" catalogs. Anyway - The Trews played confidently throughout their entire hour-long set, and by the end, have the audience in a rocking mood. They've done their job, and have landed a bunch of new fans to boot - including myself. Be sure and check out their MySpace page.

Sneaking out shortly before the break allowed me to beat the troops to the men's room, grab another brew, and find a prime "observation point" to people watch - another one of my favorite things to do at a show. Concerts seem to bring the best out in people, and tonight, that point is on full display. People are snapping up shirts, fans are talking & visiting, the beer is cold, and Ace is in the house. In short, the concert scene at the Fargo Theater is as it should be. I return to my seat refreshed, and ready for a solid set of rock.

The crowd roars (or as much of a roar as 750 people can make!) its approval when the lights go down, and Ace and his band are introduced. Seconds later, the chunky chords of the opening number Rip It Out (off the '78 solo album) greet anxious ears; fists are thrust in the air. The nervous energy that preceded the show is replaced by the static electricity of a live rock show, and Frehely and Co. christen the event in warp-drive fashion. The band wastes no time digging into the KISS catalog, scorching into Hard Times, followed by the ALIVE-era guitar tour de' force Parasite. Ace's playing through the first stanza of the show is impressive - clean, on-cue, and well-rehearsed. Frehely's band, sporting snazzy one-piece flight suits, is also impressive. Derrek Hawkins (guitar), Anthony Esposito (bass), and Scot Coogan (drums) are all excellent players - and appear to savor their roles playing alongside Ace. Rock-solid and sticky-tight all night long, the band matches his energy note-for-note, feeding the Spaceman plenty of tether to do what he does best - namely burn licks up and down the neck of his triple humbucker Gibson Les Paul. Sound-wise, the mix was perhaps the weak link in the chain to an otherwise fantastic show. Part of that may have been due to the theater's balcony extension. From what I've heard, it has a tendency to "trap" sound underneath it, so when it reverberates forward, it creates a bit of "muddiness". Nothing that I couldn't live with, though.

As for the set list - chock-full of tried-and-true Ace / KISS standards, as well as several diamonds in the rough. Colossal hits like New York Groove and Shock Me (*complete with smoking guitar solo) are expected cornerstones of any Ace Frehley performance, and both were played with conviction - much to the delight of the crowd. Lesser-known gems like Snowblind (solo LP), Rock Soldiers (Frehley's Comet), and Love Her All I Can were dusted-off for the tour. All shone brightly as interesting additions to the show. Surprisingly, the Frehley Band proved to be more than up to the task on vocal duties for the KISS numbers, which again underlined their talent as musicians. As the evening wound down, Ace pulled out the big guns - blasting through ground-shaking versions of Love Gun, Deuce, and Rocket Ride. A wide smile spread across my as the ever-familiar chords of Cold Gin rang throughout the theater - an authoritative "stamp of approval" to Ace's return to the live stage. The ALIVE-era guitar outro on Black Diamond was deftly tacked on at the end of Cold Gin, thus ending the night's musical selections in memorable fashion. From the standpoint of rock n' roll shows, this one covered all of the bases, and then some - a great opening act; Ace, of course, live onstage - playing with an excellent band; a killer set list; intimate venue; great sight-lines; a receptive crowd; and hanging out with good friends. Really, I couldn't ask for anything more.

Superlatives were abound in many a post-concert discussion, and from my perspective, those in attendance were treated to great night of music. For me personally, it was a chance to see my favorite guitar player of all time live and in person - in MY hometown - kicking out some heavy licks. I probably speak for legions of players world-wide when I say that Ace Frehley was the reason why I decided to pick up the electric guitar in the first place. While he may not enjoy the reverent adoration and critical acclaim of a Hendrix, Clapton, or Townshend - his playing style & panache', to me, are still the epitome of rock n' roll coolness. And his definitive live solo work - not only the standard of the 70's era - but the benchmark by which every hard rock guitar god was to be judged - even to present day. As a member of KISS - he was the the gasoline on the fire; his playing - the musical catalyst from which their songs attained such dazzling trajectory. The classic KISS catalog stacks up against the best of the rock genre - and largely because of Ace Frehley's contributions.

With a new, soon-to-be-released solo album in the can, an ally in sobriety, and a renewed focus on playing / performing, one could easily surmise that Ace Frehley is clearing the launch site for what might be his most successful rock n' roll mission ever. Ladies & gentlemen - we are clear for lift-off. J.