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Upfront Guitars – My personal rig rundown

August 12th, 2017

Players always like to see what other players are using, so just for fun here’s my current gigging and general playing setup.

Typically I bring a “Fender” style guitar with me, and for many years that’s been some type of G&L. Currently it’s a G&L ASAT Classic “S” with spalted alder top, swamp ash back, carmelized ebony fretboard, 12” radius Classic C neck and stainless frets. It did not start life an “S” but I realized that I really needed the middle combinations and modded it for the middle pickup (it did not have a middle rout). I’m a big fan of the neck-middle and middle-bridge much more than I am of the traditional Tele neck+bridge (which it does not even do…for now). It also has an Emerson wiring assembly which I put in every guitar I play.

ASAT Classic S

Prior to this I was using a Knaggs Severn which had a Strat type pickup arrangement with David Allen Strat Cat pickups. While the tone was great, I always hit the volume knob on that type of guitar, plus the fuller output and more mids of the G&L MFD pickups just “gig” better and work great with pedals.

The other guitar that has been in service for a while is a Knaggs Kenai. This is hands-down the best Les Paul style guitar I have played, and is much more open and articulate that most guitars of this ilk. And it’s very comfortable and only about 8 pounds. It also has Emerson wiring, a David Allen P-51 bridge pickup and a Sheptone Heartbreaker neck pickup. The P-51 is hands down my favorite bridge humbucker and you can do almost anything from country to heavy rock. The Alnico 5 Sheptone is a little more percussive than the P-51 neck, and sounds great with a touch of gain. Frankly, the stock Duncan SH-1 sounds very good too, and I could have easily used that.

deluxe and knaggs

For a long time I’d been playing through a Dr. Z Remedy and a Mojotone Pine 4×10 cabinet with Jensen P10R, C10Q speakers. I still love it, plus it’s light and actually not too loud for smaller venues. But after all these years I finally discovered the Fender Deluxe Reverb, and the combination of tone and portability won me over. This particular edition came with a Celestion Blue and a matched set of groove tubes. Other than a Mullard GZ-34 I have so far left it alone. I’m tempted to stick it in a Mojotone Pine Deluxe cabinet to cut the weight a bit and round out the tone a little. I plug into the “2” jack on the Vibrato channel. For tone and ease of transport, no wonder it’s a fixture on so many house backlines.

With the Deluxe I use a Radial JDX to run an XLR line into the mixer. This does a great job of capturing the amplifier’s tone and is much more consistent than using a microphone. The line out is as much for the monitors as it is for adding a little guitar to the overall house mix.

The pedalboard is pretty simple affair and starts out with a Voodoo Lab Giggity. It’s essentially a boost and mild EQ. But for me it’s always on, as everything just sounds better that way (I have it just barely boosting the normal signal level). It’s also an easy way to tweak levels between guitars.

pedal board

The Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive is my “mild” gain pedal and I’ve been using them for probably 15 years. The deal with the pedal is that you can mix in clean signal to maintain attack and dynamics. I’ve also had the Lovepedal Kalamazoo for a number of years and this is my higher gain pedal, although not high gain by popular standards. While it’s in theory a TS-inspired pedal, it has more gain and is not as midrange heavy.

The Keeley Seafoam Chorus is a recent edition. It’s easy to use and can add a nice clean sounding chorus without cluttering things up. The Catilan Bread Belle Epoch tape delay gets used on a couple numbers, and the Lee Jackson Mr. Springgy Reverb only gets used with the Dr. Z. I may try one of the Keeley Tone Stations to consolidate the Reverb and Delay functions and make a little more room on the board.

Lastly, the Solodallas TSR is another “always on” item that acts as a line buffer, and also makes everything sound a little bigger, more 3-D and tactile, especially with pedals. It’s initially subtle, but you know when it’s off. I don’t use it to boost the signal, just condition it. The Strymon Zuma power supply is expensive, but it’s built like a Mercedes and can power just about anything. The Solodallas needed 300mA at 12VDC, and the Strymon is one of the few power supplies that will do this.

The patch cables are the UpFront Evidence Monorail cables that I have made for UpFront Guitars, and the guitar cables are Evidence Audio Melody.

While there are some new pedals that I’d like to try out — such as the Keeley White Sands and some of the Tone Stations — I’m wary about using a new pedal live without getting very familiar with how a new pedal interacts with the board, guitar, and amp. Lately we’ve been playing out more than practicing, and experimentation time has been limited.

 

Amps and Pedals: When Gain is not Volume

July 4th, 2017
Keeley D&M Drive with boost Boost and Drive

Keeley D&M Drive with boost Boost and Drive

Here is a typical scenario: Guitar player in local bar band is playing along through a song, and now it’s time for his/her lead. The player hits his stomp box or gain channel and POOF: Where did the guitar go? Instead of standing out, the guitar fails to cut through, and sounds like and angry beehive, lost in the mix.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. Players mistake gain for distortion, or expect to get more gain and just get more distortion. It’s understandable, as on amps and pedals the terms gain, volume, drive and boost all get used quite interchangeably. But generally speaking where you apply the gain in your signal chain will determine whether you are creating more volume, more distortion, or possibly just a bunch of mud.

In a simple non-master volume amplifier, the volume control increases gain at the preamp level. The power amp section  is a fixed amount of gain. Whatever the preamp feeds it, the power amp section boosts it “X” amount. In this layout when the amp distorts, it’s the power amp tubes clipping. Unless your amp is 15 watts or less, this is pretty hard to do at reasonable volumes. This why some studio players like small low powered amps like the Fender Tweeds, old Supro’s, etc.

Master Volume amplifiers come in many shapes and sizes but most of them have some way of overloading a preamp tube (or tubes) and creating the distortion at the preamp level, and then using a second volume control (the master) to keep the overall volume level in check.

Any type of distortion causes clipping, which compresses the signal (reduces its dynamic range). The more distortion, the more the signal is compressed, producing a very even signal but with less ability to cut. Everyone has noticed how a clean guitar tone cuts through the band better than a heavily distorted one. The uncompressed dynamic range of a clean signal has a lot to do with it. Or if you use recording software, notice how much more peaky a clean guitar signal is than a distorted one? Clean guitar is much harder to track.

Let’s say you are on the dirty channel of your master volume amplifier, so you are already creating preamp distortion. If you hit a boost pedal feeding more signal into the amplifier, the effect is often to overload the preamp section even more, creating more clipping and compression. Distortion increases, but relative volume goes up very little or not at all.

Even if your “boost” switch is part of the guitar amplifier’s footpedal system, where the boost is applied will determine whether you get more volume (post preamp) or more distortion (in the preamp section). Pedals can do the same thing: If you pump a distorted pedal signal into a signal path that is already compressed, you are just layering distortion on distortion, further crushing dynamic range.

The concept of a “good pedal amplifier” is an amplifier that has enough headroom (clean gain capability) such that you can feed in boosted and distorted pedal signals without significantly overloading the amplifier. In essence the guitar amplifier is amplifying whatever you send in, but adding little or none of it’s own distortion.

A “bad” pedal amp would be a small Fender Tweed. They have so little headroom that any type of signal boosting device would just overload both sections of the amplifier, creating mush. At the other end, a Fender Twin or 100 watt Marshall can take a hot input signal without distorting, and have enough power to amplify that signal to very high decibel levels. If you listen to Angus riff on most AC/DC songs, it’s not heavily distorted, it’s just really loud. And it’s got great dynamics, bite and texture. Angus does not use any distortion pedals.

There are 15-30 watt amplifiers that are good pedal amps, and it has much to do with amplifier design, transformers, and tube selection. To generalize, a fixed bias amplifier tends to have a good amount of clean headroom (Blackface Fenders, many Mesa amplifiers) while a cathode bias amplifier may have great tone, but can be less forgiving to hot signals (Fender Tweeds, Vox, many Dr. Z EL-84 amplifiers).

Tubes matter too. While the 12AX7 preamp tube is by far the most common, the EF86 tube (some Dr. Z, 65 Amps, Bad Cat, etc.) has more gain and clean headroom potential. They also sound different than a 12AX7, but they handle pedals very well.

The fixed bias EF86 Dr Z. Z-28 makes a good pedal amp.

The fixed bias EF86 Dr Z. Z-28 makes a good pedal amp.

My own personal preference is to find a single channel amplifier with decent headroom and really good clean tone — pedals won’t make a bad amp sound good — and then go with pedals for overdrive and distortion. Real power amp distortion is awesome, but in a gigging situation where a lot of different tones/colors are needed, pedals are just more convenient and easy to modulate. If you are in a blues band and can put your Tweed on 10 and ride the guitar volume, it’s a great sound. But if you are in a wide-ranging cover band, the pedal-based format is more effective and flexible. For the record I don’t like feel or tone of attenuators, and feel it’s best to pick the right size amplifier for the job. Unless I’m outdoors I don’t play an amp bigger than about 20 watts.

You should also consider the order of your pedals. If your clean boost pedal is before your primary distortion pedal, it will increase distortion and some amount of volume. If it’s after your primary distortion pedal, it will increase volume more effectively with little increase in distortion. Arranging your pedals with an eye towards how they will interact can greatly increase their effectiveness.

If we go back to the hypothetical guitar player at the beginning of this post, think about some of your favorite blues and classic rock guitar leads. Quite often they are not wildly distorted, but there is a lot of texture, dynamics, and the personality of the guitar player comes through. Managing volume versus distortion can improve the quality of your lead work, and help it stand out better in the mix. I’m not talking about playing “clean” but that crushing amounts of pedal or preamp distortion can really suck the emotional life out of a guitar. Music is all about dynamics, and making sure your guitar does not vanish at that crucial moment can make or break the emotional impact of the song.

 

Cool Amp Find Vol. 4 – Fender Deluxe Reverb Electric Blue

July 2nd, 2017

Fender-Blue-Deluxe-smallThe Fender Deluxe Reverb is hardly rare, and there are literally thousands out there: Vintage, new, Blackface, and Silverface. You can spend $750 for a nice used Blackface reissue, or $2000+ for a pre-CBS (1965) vintage unit. Even in the “bad era” of CBS, the circuit remained largely unchanged. So if you must have the Real Thing, a 60’s Silverface is essentially the same.

We pickup up this particular model in trade. It’s circa 2008, but was pretty much new-in-box, wrapped in plastic. The Electric Blue model differs from a garden-variety reissue by virtue of the blue tolex, a premium set of matched Groove Tubes, a limited edition name plate, and a British-made Celestion Blue speaker.

This particular Cool Amp Find is more about my ignorance and prejudice about the Fender Blackface sound than it is about the rarity or greatness of the Fender Deluxe.

I’ve dabbled in early Fenders — Pro Reverb for example — both true Silverface and Blackface. While I have not owned a Twin, I’ve had plenty of contact with them. I was always hit with the same impression: Too hard, too stiff, and too loud. Given that Fender was making amplifiers that “worked” prior to modern PA systems, there was no environment where I ever got into the sweet spot of these amplifiers. A Pro Reverb on “6” is crazy, a Twin on six is fatal.

It turns out that my problem was not Blackface, it was that I was using the wrong amplifier.

I have now learned what countless other guitar players have already figured out: The Blackface Deluxe Reverb is probably one of the most perfect guitar amps ever. Loud enough on stage to match the drummer, enough headroom to handle pedals, but supple enough to get natural tube amp grind. Plus it’s easy to carry, and there is no shortage of parts, mods and tweaks.

While I’ve not experienced a non-Celestion Deluxe, I like the warm early breakup and strong low end of the Celestion blue. By nature I’m a constant tweaker, but we’ve had a lot of gigs lately and all I’ve had time to do is drop in a Mullard GZ-34 rectifier and a longer speaker cable so I could use my Radial JDX box for the PA. I’m toying with the idea of a Mojo Pine Deluxe cabinet to cut a little weight and give it a little warmer vibe.

But overall I love it, and I feel silly that it took me this long to discover the DR. It works well with single coils and humbuckers, and it makes perfect sense that backlines everywhere are littered with the Fender Deluxe. It’s now my #1 gig amp, and unless I’m outdoors, I don’t need anything bigger.

Given the great tone and portability of the Fender Deluxe, whether you purchase new or used, it’s killer value. If you don’t need channel switching, built in effects (other than Reverb or Vibrato) or modeling, I can’t imagine anything better in this price range. And if you really want hand-wired splendor, you could probably purchase a used Deluxe and have someone do a turret board conversion for less than a new boutique amp.

Sometimes in the chase for ultimate tone, we ignore simple solutions that are right under our nose. The Fender Deluxe is simultaneously mundane and also just what I’ve been looking for.

Here is a demo video of a G&L guitar, using our Fender Deluxe Reverb. The player is Berklee instructor Scott Tarulli. There are no effects other than light compression and reverb. The gain tones are the Deluxe Reverb on the normal channel cranked up:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJFtFlAbdn4

 

 

Cool Amp Find Vol. 3 – Down Brownie Amplifier

March 31st, 2017
down brownie

Down Brownie 6G3 from Cutthroat Audio

While the past two “Cool Amp Finds” were out of production used amplifiers, this amp is available new right now. Ron Westwood of Cutthroat Audio has come up with the Down Brownie, a very cool totally portable amplifier that is an expertly crafted reproduction of the 6G3 Fender Brownface, but also much more than just a copy.

The 6G3 Brownface is a “transitional” amplifier that came between the Tweed and Blackface era. Putting out about 15 watts and using a fixed bias 6V6 circuit, the Down Brownie is the type of amplifier that just begs you to crank it up to around “8” and manipulate the various shades of semi-clean to dirty with the guitar’s volume control. Pedals? It’s really not the same. To get the classic sound of a small amp turned up, you really do need a small amp turned up. The Brownie has the tactile push-pull nature between the guitar and amplifier that makes it feel like a living, breathing organism rather than an assemblage of wires and components. No matter where you are on the guitar’s volume control the tone is natural, deep, and satisfying.

But Ron did not stop there. The amp also features tube or solid state rectification, three selectable levels of negative feedback, a post phase inverter master volume (on the back), Mercury Transformers, and an Alnico Weber speaker.

We would also be remiss if we did not mention the vibrato circuit. It’s just dynamite, and can add a subtle depth that you can just leave on all the time, or a deep pulsating warble.

The biggest departure from the 6G3 is that the “normal” circuit has been replaced by a “British” circuit. Rather than just having the normal channel be a drier version of the vibrato channel, the tone stack has been voiced and located similar to a small Marshall amplifier. Also, when you pull the volume control it jumpers the two channels. Oh yeah, pulling the tone control is like a bright/defeat switch. This channel is a little bright for my taste (and so are small British amplifiers) but in jumper mode it gives the Brown channel a nice edge.

All this tweaking potential would not matter if the core tone of the amplifier was not as good as it is. The Brownie has a warm, rich “brown” tone that is similar to Tweed Deluxe, but in my mind less raspy with smoother highs and tighter bass your average small Tweed clone. If you want the Neil Young on-the-verge-of-meltdown tone, stick with a Tweed, but to me the Brownie feels more put together.

If you can’t part with your pedals or want ample clean headroom, the Brownie is probably not for you. You can mic this amp for a gig, but if you need true clean volume, this is not the Brownie’s strong suit. But for shades of clean-ish that you can easily push over the edge, the Brownie is a wonderful creation that weighs less than most people’s pedalboards.

 

G&L – What is new for 2017?

March 6th, 2017

Back from our 2017 NAMM trip and G&L factory tour, we’d thought we’d let you in on what’s new in 2017 for G&L. Before we get rolling, there are no base price changes to the guitars or the major options. There may be a couple tweaks here and there, but nothing that has a significant effect on the price of a guitar.

Note: G&L’s website may not be entirely up to date. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us. Here’s a rundown of the more notable changes:

Basswood – Basswood is now an option on any guitar for a slight up charge. Basswood is sonically similar to Alder but lighter in weight. This is is response to the growing interest in lighter weight guitars (It’s all those Baby Boomers with back issues!) The grain on Basswood ain’t much, so if you opt for premium finish, it may be a little underwhelming.

Okoume – Also a new wood option with pricing similar to Swamp Ash. Okoume is similar tonally to Mahogany, but lighter in weight and not regulated or endangered in any sense. It has a reddish tint, so keep that in mind when going for premium finishes (Hint: Old School Tobacco or Clear Red). Okoume was used on the Savannah series of semi-hollow guitars, which we thought sounded great.

Empress Wood – Still available, but not a consistent enough supply to make it into the price book. I really like the clean forward tone of an Empress bass, but maybe a little bright on some guitar models. The shop foreman at G&L prefers the tone of a multi-piece Empress body used for solid finishes rather than the one or two-piece clear finish variety.

Carmelized Ebony – Think of this as “striped ebony” and G&L has a limited number of boards that are in guitar length only. There was a time when only purely black ebony would do. But dwindling resources and the impact of Bob Taylor (Taylor Guitars) and his quest to preserve Ebony has made streaked Ebony acceptable. More power to him. Frankly it looks great, and I love the feel of a real ebony fretboard. It’s a great surface and not a huge up charge.

Rosewood – Rosewood is now becoming a highly regulated wood. This is a result of the increased demand in China for Rosewood furniture, and when 1.2 billion people want something…well that has an impact. There are literally a couple hundred varieties of Rosewood including Cocobolo. Expect to see more manufacturers looking for alternate fretboard woods that have good tonal properties and the right feel.

No Semi-Hollow Legacy, Comanche, S-500….for now – G&L is in the midst of re-tooling a number of guitars, and the low demand of these models has taken them off the list for now. IMHO – If you think a Legacy with less low end is a good idea, have at it. But I’ll stick with a solid body. If weight is a overriding concern, Basswood, Okoume, or Empress is a better route and a lot less money.

Rear Mounted Control Guitars (RMC) – Many of the “Deluxe” guitars have given way to a no-pickguard style guitar without the requirement to purchase a flame maple top. This is a big deal, and makes an ASAT Deluxe pickup configuration much more affordable. You can still get an ASAT Deluxe, but now it’s not the only way to get two humbuckers in an ASAT.

Block Inlays – Rumored to be in the works but not in the latest price book. If you like the look of the big block inlays introduced by Fender in the mid-60’s they are on the way.

A few years back I came up with the tagline for my website, “Guitars made by craftsman, not accountants.” That really sums up G&L: A bunch or really dedicated people who love guitars. Like a lot of small manufacturers in the music business, it’s a labor of love, and when you talk to the folks as G&L you definitely get that vibe.

 

Cool Amp Find Vol. 2 – 2000’s Fender Custom Vibrolux Reverb

February 2nd, 2017

Here’s another cool amp find that we recommend: A 2000’s era Fender Custom Vibrolux Reverb. We found ours a local music store that has virtually all second hand gear. Something in the back of my head thought it might be “something” so we nabbed it. You can typically find them anywhere from $550 – $800.

But be warned: This is a somewhat controversial amplifier, and owning one might subject you to criticism and scorn on the gear forums.

CVR

Why? Because while it has blackface cosmetics, it’s not really a blackface amplifier. It’s more similar to the early 60’s brownface Vibrolux Reverb, but it’s not an exact copy of that either. Designer Bruce Zinky — who is the designer of the new line of Supro amplifiers — designed the “CVR” to be a spongier, more forgiving amplifier that would break up a lower volumes. Sort of a brown/tweed if you will. Along the way he also enabled reverb on both channels, took out the negative feedback, and a few other tweaks. Depending on your point of view, he’s either a hero or a heretic.

Maybe not quite a hero, but everyone who plays it really likes this amplifier. Try as I might, I could never really bond with a true blackface. I’ve tried a couple true Black and Silverface Pro Reverbs, but tended to find them too stiff, too bright, and too loud. Getting any character out of them required uncomfortable volume levels. I’ve been more of a tweed fan, and even my Dr. Z Remedy is similar to a smaller Marshall, which was copied from the Bassman, which is a tweed. But while little tweeds are fun, they don’t much headroom at all, which is limiting if you are in a cover band and want to use some pedals.

The CVR fits this middle ground and has enough headroom to gig, but gets its character at reasonable levels. Turn the volume up to about 5 and play with the guitar’s volume knob and you can get a wide range of excellent clean to lightly crunchy tones. It’s a little loose in the low end, but that’s the plan.

But purists decry it’s lack of faithfulness to any particular original Fender schematic, the low background hiss caused by adding reverb to both channels, and what’s felt to be an overall wimpy reverb. Phooey I say. In most situations it’s way more usable, and gives you the “turned up” tone at a level your band can live with. And does anybody turn a “true” Fender reverb up over 3? Regarding the hiss, who can tell once you are playing? And if you have a drummer it’s a totally moot point.

In addition the 2×10 speaker format is a great combination. There is more speaker surface area than a 15″ speaker, and you get nice low end response and better coverage with less beaming than a single 12″ speaker. Top it all off, the CVR weighs only around 40 pounds, maybe less depending on speaker choice.

Naturally, since this is not a faithful reproduction of a Vibrolux there are modification kits to make it true to the brownface Vibrolux schematic. Moyer is one of those kits and Fromel makes a couple different versions of his kit. My brother installed the Fromel kit in his CVR and it did exactly as intended. My only caution is that is “undoes” some of what makes it a CVR, and makes it more like a true Vibrolux. Yes, it is quieter, but also little stiffer and brighter. Fortunately you can do only parts of the Fromel kit, and the instructions tell you exactly what mod is having which impact on the amp. You can upgrade the tone caps and power supply caps, but not necessarily put back the negative feedback, etc.

These are really nice amps, easy to carry, and for very reasonable money your are getting a gig-worthy amp that will rival products costing triple the price. Hands down my favorite all-around Fender so far. With the new amplifier world generally split into two camps of cheap/depressing and boutique/expensive the CVR is a gem.

UpFront Guitars Goes To NAMM 2017

January 28th, 2017

OK, so we just got back from NAMM, and as always it’s a fun if not tiring and slightly deafening time. This is not a blow-by-blow rundown of the show, but a few quick observations on what we did and saw.

G&L – G&L did not display at the show, but the factory is 20 minutes away and so we dropped in for a tour. We spent quite a bit of time there, and got a very detailed tour from Ben the Shop Foreman (I won’t throw out a lot of names because I did not ask them that ahead of time. But you can read their build sheets). There is a lot that goes into a guitar, but the process takes place in four major sections: Wood shop, paint, polish and assembly. It’s pretty compact facility and G&L builds in a day what Fender probably builds in 15 minutes. It’s a group of people who build guitars and love doing it. And they are doing it better than ever.

The NAMM Show – With over 1100 exhibitors for just “fretted instruments” it begs the question, “how on earth does one make up their mind on anything?” The shear number of guitar manufacturers makes you wonder how anyone survives. Especially the small builders who are often making very expensive guitars in low numbers. Some of their work is exquisite and some just weird. But how they carve out their market niche and clientele seems challenging to say the least.

The amplifier market seems to be a tale of two cities: The big and fairly big guys like Marshall, Fender, Orange and Vox, and the boutique-ish small builders scattered throughout the show. With margins very thin on amplifiers, many of the small builders seem rather disinterested in dealers, and focus more on direct sales or getting picked up by Sweetwater. Supro is currently occupying the space between average and boutique, and the guitar world needs more of that. For us, the search continues for amp line that is inspiring and reasonably affordable. Sigh.

Keeley Electronics – Except for our beloved Solodallas, we have deliberately avoided pedals. The whole market seems insanely over-saturated, and like a lot of things at NAMM, how on earth does one choose? But pedal effects are a fact of life, and I have a pedal board, so who am I to judge? So we chose Keeley electronics. Why? They have a comprehensive line that covers just about everything, they sound good, are well built, and they shy away from gimmicks and silly stuff, like calling a volume knob “urgency” and nonsense like that. Pro-level pedals for regular folks that won’t cost you $400.

Heritage Guitars – We’ve been looking at Heritage for about three years, but never quite made the jump. We’ve played a couple and they are awesome, but long delivery times, minimal marketing, and the secondary market made us skittish. But they’ve got new ownership, a renewed emphasis on artist relations and marketing, and better operations management that should bring down lead times and bolster consistency. So we are going to take the plunge, and while it will take 3-4 months to get our first batch, we are really looking forward to it.

Norman Guitars, Art and Lutherie – Acoustics have never been a big part of our business, but they are a big part of the market. We’ve dabbled in some higher end acoustics, but I’m convinced that if you can’t have Taylor or Martin, you’ll be forever swimming upstream. Their names are synonymous with the genre, like Kleenex. But everyone needs a solid, affordable acoustic, and we decided to go with two of Godin’s other historic  brands, Norman and Art and Lutherie. Both have been given a little bit of a reboot, and the new A&L guitars in particular have some very cool “Americana” finishes that are hip, and fit in well with singer-songwriter coolness. Take one to Brooklyn, and you’ll be an instant hit.

Best Booth Venue for Music – Taylor. The Taylor room always has interesting people, a nice stage and great sound. And usually a surprise or two.

Biggest Marketing Splash – D’Angelico. Where did these guys come from? Somebody has put some serious bucks into what I thought was a little jazz box company. Even Ukes for heaven’s sake. And Bob Weir was the invitation-only headliner on Friday night. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Pianos, Band and Orchestra – This is not a guitar show, and the amount of space occupied by Piano, B&O and Sheet Music makes one think twice about what makes the industry tick.

Metal Heads – They keep the guitar industry alive and are the guitar’s most faithful supporters, even more than Blues. The autograph line for Steve Morse at the Ernie Ball booth always wraps around at least once.

Line 6 – Was not even in the convention hall, but in a ballroom at an adjacent hotel. I don’t follow the logic on that. Would you take a long walk through a crowd and security to look at a Line 6? Me neither.

Post Show Music in the Hotels – Take a nap, do whatever, but make a point of hanging out a the host hotels after the show closes for the night. The music is frequently good — at least performed well — and you never know who you will run into.

Flame and Quilt Maple tops for G&L Guitars

January 22nd, 2017
flame maple top on ASAT Special from UpFront Guitars

A G&L Flame Maple top on an ASAT Special

Quilt Maple Top S-500 UpFront Guitars

A very deep Quilt Maple top on a G&L S-500

One of the snazzier options for a G&L guitar — or any guitar — is the addition of a flame or quilt maple top. The grain pattern in these woods is produced by cutting specific varieties of  maple in a direction that highlights the grain or figuring of the wood. This technique has been around a long time, and violin builders have been using flame maple — especially for instruments backs — for ages.

A maple top is both cosmetic, and to some degree sonic, and guitar builders frequently employ maple to add brightness. In particular it pairs well with mahogany solid bodies, which otherwise can be a little dark or muddy. So while they look great, is this a good idea as an option for a G&L guitar?

In theory, woods that are more hard and dense tend to add brightness. I guess one way to think about it is that they are more reflective than absorptive. Maple being quite hard tends to accentuate high frequencies. Single coil guitars like a G&L probably don’t need maple for the purpose of brightness, although an exception to this might be the ASAT Deluxe which has two humbucker pickups. In this case the classic pairing of mahogany body and maple top is a natural. Or a Bluesboy, which has a warm and woody Alnico 2 neck humbucker. And while the Fallout is thought of as a “simple” guitar, from personal experience the P-90 and Humbucker pairing responds nicely to a maple top, and looks very cool. Tuxedo Punk, if you will.

But will a maple top ruin your ASAT, S-500 or Legacy? No it won’t, and in the case of the MFD pickups they have plenty of depth and body to work well with a maple top. With any Legacy or traditional ALNICO pickup it can get pretty bright, especially at the bridge. But if you like the look, don’t be shy: After all you do have tone controls. The concept that guitars sound best with all the controls up is just not so. Personally I don’t think any P-90 sounds best wide open, but I love them with a little bit of volume or tone roll off. You paid for those knobs, so use them.

In the extreme, it is possible to create a guitar that is too bright. Maple will add some brightness, certain body woods will add brightness, a vibrato bridge is brighter than a hard tail, and so on. I did have a customer order a Comanche, quilt maple on Empress wood, and vibrato bridge. Between the wood, pickups and bridge it was about as zippy as you an get. I actually thought it sounded good, but he was never quite happy and changed out the pickups. In general, the pickups are the greatest driver, with body wood and bridge type being the next biggest factors. Fretboard material in my opinion matters least.

And remember, you do have tone controls….so build something you dig looking at.

Interesting Amp Find Part 1 – The Mesa Stiletto 50W

October 22nd, 2016

mesa-shotI would normally categorize myself as a “less is more” person when it comes to amplifiers. I tend to favor rather simple amps, usually single channel, and use a couple pedals. Most of the time I’m using a Dr. Z Remedy, but also have a Bassman, a Custom Vibrolux and as of recent a Mesa F50 (the next blog topic).

But along comes this Mesa 50W Stiletto that we took in trade. I once had a 100w/50w Lone Star Combo, and it shares a lot of the options, knob assignments and tweaking possibilities. So even though I have never played a Stiletto, I somewhat knew my way around it.

This amp was Mesa’s answer to the Marshall sound, and as such sports EL-34 power tubes, a Plexi/Bassman style circuit, and a sealed cabinet with a Vintage 30 speaker. It has the Mesa “spongy” switch that drops the amp voltage for more touch response, and the ability to switch between tube and solid state rectifier (individually on each channel). Also like many Marshall amplifiers there is no reverb.

Initial impressions of the amp was that it was extremely bright and tight. On regular power and solid state rectifier, this amp as very little give, and if you’re a “spongy” amp guy like me it’s a little disconcerting. But between the tube rectifier, the spongy switch, and the three position “character” switch for each channel, there is something for everyone.

I like EL-34’s, and they have a very complex and harmonically rich top end. This helps the Stiletto pump out some awesomely good clean tones. By running on spongy with the gain and master around noon, and using the tube rectifier, it’s not hard to get some sweet touch-induced tube crunch. The amp also has an overall level control, and you can get these tones at reasonable volumes. But if you want your own personal Twin, run it on solid state rectifier and full power and you’ll have ample clean headroom. It’s likely that if you ask a typical Mesa player how they like their clean channel they’ll say, “I don’t know.” The Stiletto has a clean channel worth knowing.

The gain channel is naturally quite bright (like a Marshall) and don’t be afraid to twist the tone controls to tone it down a bit. But once you have it dialed in, it’s got some amazing Brit-crunch that has overtones and character out the wazoo. The sealed back cabinet helps to tighten up the sound, and the enclosure is not a parallel box, we assume in order to reduce standing wave forms. The total gain potential is end-of-days crazy, and we can’t imagine a usable scenario. But if you like tight, harmonic crunch you can cut with a knife, it’s freak’in awesome. You can’t model this….

Drawbacks? The Stiletto combo must weigh around 70 pounds, so it’s a good thing it has casters. Also the Vintage 30 has an inherent midrange spike, and some EL-34 tubes are likewise, and we found the standard Mesa power tubes were a bit too forward in this respect. We are using some groove tubes that we like, and if we can find some Winged C’s we’d probably be really happy. We also tried a Warehouse Reaper HP in the Mesa, as we’ve like the Reaper in the past. We could not get it out of the cabinet fast enough. Just goes to show that Mesa really does engineer the amplifier, and you can’t just stick anything in there. Same with pre-amp tubes: They are not easy to get at, and just leave the Mesa tubes in there. If you can find a NOS 5U4GB, go for it.

I sort of thought that we’d move this Mesa along as soon as it came in the shop. But it sounds awfully good, and we’ve taken it on gigs where we don’t have to haul it up stairs. On cleans it comes close to our beloved Dr. Z. Remedy, and it can break up a lower levels. If you don’t want to bring any pedals and just use the gain channel — and if you can open it up — it’s other-worldly.

The Stiletto does not really EQ or respond like your typical Mesa, and in that respect it was probably somewhat misunderstood, and underappreciated. But it’s probably our favorite Mesa so far, and highly underrated. They are out there anywhere from $800 to $1300 and represent a true bargain.

The G&L ASAT Special – Truly Special

July 21st, 2016
A fancy ASAT Special

A fancy ASAT Special

My first-ever G&L was a 3-bolt ASAT Special purchased in the mid-80’s. I really knew nothing about the brand at that time, but thought it was a very cool guitar. It was used, and as USA guitars go, at a good price at the local music store.

It’s very hard to buck tradition, but the ASAT Special is intended to be evolutionary progress relative to Leo Fender’s iconic original solid body. The most noticeable difference to the Tele® are the large MFD pickups, often mistaken for P-90 pickups. These are what drew me to the guitar both visually and sonically. The neck pickup sounded very Strat® like, a tone I’ve always loved but never really took to playing Strats. But it was also bigger, fuller sounding, and could be jazzy, or Tele-like with a couple knob tweaks.

The bridge pickup was twangy, clean, and being a Beatles fan reminded me a lot of that early sound. But it too had more guts than my old 70’s Tele and sounded a lot sweeter than the Duncan quarter-pounder that I had in my homemade Parts-Caster. It wasn’t going to cut it for heavy rock, but through the drive channel of my Peavey — few pedals in those days — it was great for the type of stuff we were playing back then like REM, Crowded House and Steely Dan.

Fast forward thirty years and the ASAT Special is still relevant, and still a very usable guitar. It has the ability to channel both Strat, Tele, and even Jazzmaster, while also being able to kick it pretty hard with a gain pedal. My band is playing more funk theses days — thank you Bruno Mars — but country is also in demand. I think it’s time to break out the ASAT Special again.