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Gibson – Out of Bankruptcy: Now the fun begins

October 28th, 2018

les paul shotAfter declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy and parting ways with the sometimes controversial Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson will emerge from bankruptcy protection on November 1st with a new management team and funding from private investment firm KKR.

It’s safe to say that the future of Gibson the guitar company was never really in doubt. As a brand it is healthy and well-respected, and annual sales of Gibson and associated brands like Epiphone are somewhere in the $300 million range. But while Mr. Juszkiewicz can be credited with taking Gibson from a struggling brand in the 80’s to the giant it is today, his quest to build Gibson into a “lifestyle brand” was also Gibson’s financial undoing.

The Gibson acquisition 1986 was Juszkiewicz’s home run, but nearly every other attempt to build the brand — Stanton, Phillips, Baldwin Piano, Garrison Guitar, Gibson branded restaurants, etc — were essentially financial drags that puffed up the top line, did little to grow the bottom line, and added piles of debt. And when Gibson skipped the 2018 NAMM show and instead attended the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Vegas, things had gotten truly weird. In the end, Gibson’s bonds were rated at near junk status, and the “lifestyle brand” was brought down by what kills most distressed companies: They ran out of money to pay their debts.

With KKR funding and shedding some of the under-performing dead weight, Gibson guitars and Gibson Pro Audio will enter a new chapter of ownership, and has recently announced their new management team. You can read about the new team here: https://tiny.cc/wzsi0y

It would appear that things are looking up for Gibson: They have a great brand, loyal customers, formidable financial resources, and if you look past the buzzword-gibberish of their resumes, a capable management team. But their are some things to watch for with the New Gibson.

KKR is a Private Equity (PE) firm, meaning that they have their own funding to invest with, and are not a publicly traded company. PE firms tend to target companies that they believe are under-valued, with the goal of increasing their financial worth, and selling them at a profit down the road. PE firms are typically not in it for the long haul. They want to get their initial investment back, and hopefully drive up the value for a future sale.

So while the new CEO professes to be a personal fan of Gibson guitars — make no mistake — this is about making money, and preferably quickly. PE firms are not touchy-feely organizations, and they are not always particularly patient. There will be plenty of pressure to perform and create solid financial returns. Hopefully, they will do this by making great guitars that musicians love and want to purchase. But this is not a labor of love, and at some point KKR will want to recoup their investment.

From personal experience, one of the tricky things about Gibson is the steadfast traditionalism of their fan base. In contrast to Fender, Gibson fans have less tolerance for deviating from tradition (no Gibson “Parallel Universe” guitar, that’s for sure). Silly things like robo-tuners aside, Gibson fans push back rather swiftly — sometimes even making personal YouTube complaint videos — when they feel that Gibson has strayed off course. So when the new management team talks about “innovation” they have to keep in mind that their core customer may not be looking for something different. Technology has revolutionized recording, pro audio and even guitar amplifiers, but guitar players tend to like their instruments just as they’ve always been, and are slow to change.

Also, while the internet is a powerful selling tool, many guitar players still like to have a personal shopping experience. The “old” Gibson made it pretty much impossible for smaller stores to do business with them, and put all their chips in with major big box and internet retailers. While Sweetwater is the major exception, most of the big internet retailers don’t know the product well, frequently have inaccurate descriptions, pricing and sometimes even the wrong photos. You do yourself no favors when your chosen retail channel does not know what they are talking about. Feeling good about where you bought the product is part of the ownership experience (premium car brands focus intently on this aspect of the sales process)

So best wishes to the new Gibson management team. The music business really is different and more emotionally-linked than other products. Guitar Center and Mars Music were supposed to be the future of music retail. Mars folded eons ago, and Guitar Center has struggled for years to turn a profit (they are also in junk bond territory and routinely flirt with insolvency). The great thing about selling musical instruments is that it’s not like selling blue jeans, and a great many of our customers are emotionally invested in the product. Let’s hope they take that into consideration.

Spalted wood tops for both Looks and Tone

July 5th, 2018

While electric guitars and basses are first and foremost musical tools, for many players looks run a close second to tone. For years guitar builders have used various types of wood tops to enhance the looks — and sometimes tone — of solid and semi-hollow electric guitars. Flamed and quilted maple tops have been a perennial option from many manufacturers including G&L, Gibson, PRS, Fender, Godin and others. But one of the more interesting materials of late has been spalted woods. These materials are not part of the regular G&L price book, but they show up depending on availability.

sb2-tight

Spalted alder top on a G&L SB-2

Spalting is caused by fungus that attacks both live and dead trees causing unique coloration and figuring of the wood. It can lead to weight and strength loss, and also reduced density. So while you would not want to build a whole guitar out of a spalted wood, when stained and finished they are unique and eye-catching. Some guitar builders will also use dyes injected into the wood grain to accentuate the look even further.

Tone impact? – Maple tops have been used for years, and in many cases not only look good but have a beneficial impact on tone. This is especially true on set-neck, shorter scale guitars like a Gibson Les Paul, which tend to have a darker tone, and less pronounced attack and harmonics. The dense maple top brightens up the tone and is more reflective. It’s a good complement to warmer more mid-focused sound of mahogany, humbuckers, etc.

But maple as a top is not a particularly complex or rich sounding material. While this works well to “liven up” a Les Paul, the effect is different on a bolt-on, longer scale guitar with single coil pickups. Maple combined with the snappy, more focused tones of a single coil can sound a little dry and one-dimensional. We’ve had maple tops on various G&L’s, and our impression is that they have very clear emphasis on the fundamental note, but not a lot of complexity. We are not totally down on maple, but it benefits from fuller sounding pickups and more complex sounding woods for the back materials: Think humbuckers, most MFD’s (maybe not the Z-coil) and swamp ash.

The spalted woods tend to be different, and our own hypothesis is that the effect of the spalting makes them less dense and softer, even when the material is maple. We’ve found spalted top guitars to be every bit as complex and musical as a good swamp ash bodied guitar. The top may lend even more warmth and richness, but with no two guitars ever being exactly alike, we don’t want to go overboard on analysis. Suffice to say on something like a G&L or other single coil guitar, we very much like the sound of a spalted top, and feel it complements the tone.

Other Materials? – While not a spalted wood, we find Black Limba works nice on G&L-style guitars too. Limba is mahogany-like in tone — though actually not part of the mahogany species — and a Limba cap adds some warmth and mid-range emphasis to a single coil, bolt-on guitar. And it looks pretty. Something we would not do? Maple and Empress: That’s bright/focused on top of bright/focused. It might work on a bass (we like Empress for a bass) but would be as dry and crisp as James Bond’s Martini.

G&L Kiloton Black Limba top

G&L Kiloton Black Limba top

Choosing the cosmetics of your guitar is a fun part of the buying process. But choosing just on looks can have unintended consequences. Keeping in mind what works well together, it’s completely possible to combine both good looks and good tone.

 

Hand Wired Guitar Amps: Point-to-Point and Other Constructions

April 22nd, 2018

We recently became acquainted with the Little Walter amplifier line, and after hearing them and meeting their creator Phil Bradbury, we decided to jump on board. Truth be told, amplifiers are a tough product to sell, and many players are enamored with purchasing more guitars rather than purchasing another amplifier. While we would hardly not sell a customer a guitar, we are firm believers that amplifiers are a critical and overlooked component to a player’s tone.

Little Walter "59" Head

Little Walter “59” Head

Among other interesting features and attributes of the Little Walter amplifiers is that they are point-to-point (PTP) construction. Due to the labor-intensive nature of this construction style, PTP is quite rare and constitutes a tiny fraction of total amplifier production. But before we get to PTP, let’s cover the other more popular methods, their benefits and drawbacks. And we are only addressing tube amplifiers, not comparing solid state to tube amplifiers.

 

 

Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

The vast majority of amplifiers are constructed using printed circuit boards, from lowly practice amplifiers to high end products from Mesa, Fender, Marshall, etc. PCB’s are cost effective, permit assembly automation, and also allow for higher levels of complexity not possible with other methods. Multi-channel amplifiers, on-board effects, processor chips and modeling are just not possible without PCB construction. While most PCB amplifiers utilize “through hole” components similar to those used in older styles of construction, newer surface mount devices (SMD) can radically shrink the size of certain components, allowing for even greater levels of functionality with minimal impact on space.

While newer technology lowers cost and increases functionality, there can be compromises in sound. Some components do have a “sound,” most notably capacitors, transformers, and some believe even resistors. A paper-in-oil capacitor has a particular sonic characteristic that is unique to its construction, but the size and configuration make it unsuitable for volume production, not to mention cost. You might scoff at the idea of one capacitor type sounding better than another, but make a speaker cone out of the wrong paper and it will sound bad. The same is true with passive electronic components. An amplifier’s price is a function of its components, but also its assembly method, and some components are only practical on a hand-wired amp.

The layout (schematic) of a printed circuit board is also a compromise between assembly efficiency and optimal circuit path. If you’ve ever seen a PCB, it’s a myriad of thin copper traces laid out in usually logical parallel lines and right angles. Good circuit board layout is part skill and part art, and tightly packed component layouts can create capacitive losses, impact certain frequencies, add noise, and overall have an impact on the sound. That may sound like tone snobbery, but having been in the business of manufacturing PCB-based products, schematics have consequences.

Eyelet and Turret Board Construction

Eyelet and Turret Board construction utilize an epoxy or fiberboard card as a platform to lay out the various small components of an amplifier. The larger components such as transformers and tub sockets are generally affixed directly to the amp chassis. These types of amps can accommodate a wide range of component configurations and allow quite a bit of design freedom. Most of today’s “hand-wired” amps use this type of construction, and examples include Dr. Z, high end Fender and Marshall models, and many other boutique brands. Fender used eyelet board construction on all its amps right through the seventies (more a lack of investment than tonal concerns). Being hand assembled is not without cost though: A standard PCB Fender Deluxe Reverb is around $1100, while the hand wired version using a fiberboard will set you back $2400. If you plan to keep an amp a long time, a non-PCB amplifier is much easier to service, and if you are a tweaker, also easier to mod. While PCB’s are repairable they are often fragile and fussy to service, especially for an amateur. If the PCB contains SMD devices, just throw it out and get a new board.

Eyelet board amplifier

Eyelet board amplifier

Do hand-wired amps sound better than PCB? By virtue of their component flexibility, often less complex and less crowded layouts, they certainly have the potential to sound better. Of course, the actual circuit design matters too, and nobody is going to go to the trouble of making a hand-wired amplifier with cheesy components. There is a little of chicken & egg going on here, but it’s understandable why many discerning players gravitate towards this style of amplifier.

 

 

Point-to-Point Amplifiers (PTP)

PTP is in many ways the most primitive type of construction, and dates back to when modern materials for circuit and turret boards did not even exist (the fiberboard is a waxy carboard material that predates the PCB). In PTP construction, the components are wired directly to their intended connections with no type of component board. Some builders may use terminal strips to for structural support, but the circuit path is very direct, and you can see exactly where everything is going. Due to the labor-intensive nature of construction, PTP amplifiers are typically single channel amplifiers with limited bells and whistles. In another instance of chicken & egg, they are simple designs because the nature of their construction drives them in that direction.

BC Audio Point-to-Point amp

BC Audio Point-to-Point amp

The selling point of the PTP amp is that the pure, direct circuit path along with optimal wire routings and broad component freedom have a beneficial impact on tone.  Technically speaking, PTP amps have the least amount of “stuff” clogging up the circuit, hence the potential for better sound quality.

The concept behind the PTP amp is what we like to call “directionally correct.” If you put 15 pedals between your guitar and the amp – or in an effect loop — there is a degradation in tone. Every additional circuit and feature in an amplifier – including reverb – has some impact on the amp’s natural tone (if your amp has a switch to bypass the tone controls, note the jump in gain). The PTP amp is the shortest distance between guitar and speaker.

Can you hear the difference? Like most things with music, it’s a highly subjective question. And like other hand-wired amps, PTP amplifiers are not going to skimp on component quality. The best thing to do is listen to a lot of amplifiers, and ideally if you can listen to them through the same speaker cabinet, as this also has a big influence on sound. We have the luxury of being able to try a lot of amps, and our own experience has led us in the direction that the fewer the knobs, the better. Maybe we’re just bad at adjusting knobs, but our ears tell us to keep it simple.

Life tends to drive us in the direction of increasing complexity, and music is no exception. But your guitar is not a smart phone. Ideally, it’s an analog tool to create art that requires an intimate connection between the creator (you) and the medium (your guitar and amplifier). Oftentimes simplicity is the key to creativity.

Discovering Octal Preamp Tubes for Guitars Amps

March 12th, 2018

Little Walter model 50 HeadFor most players using tube guitar amplifiers, the ubiquitous 12AX7 may be the only preamp tube they have ever used. It’s the highest gain of the 9-pin dual triode preamp tubes, although the lower gain 12AY7 and 12AT7 show up in various functions such as phase inverters and reverb drivers. There is also the pentode EF86 9-pin tube that has been used by Dr. Z., Bad Cat and others. But it’s a safe bet that the 12AX7 is king of guitar preamp tubes.

Early guitar amplifiers from Fender, Gibson, and others used what are known as “octal” preamp tubes (such as the 6SL7, 6SN7 and 6SC7), which use the same 8-pin base as the 6V6 and 6L6. This tube pre-dated the development of the 12AX7, and is essentially what there was for early guitar amp builders to use.

When the 9-pin designs came along, builders quickly changed over to them for the simple reason that it helped make louder, tighter amplifiers at lower cost. Distortion was not a feature back then, it was a problem, and the 12AX7 was part of the solution. Early amp builders were not obsessing over the “sound” of a particular tube. The goal was amplification, plain and simple.

Octal preamp amplifiers are still around, but they represent a tiny sliver of overall amplifier production. While there are a handful of amp builders using them, BC Audio did a lot to put them back on the map. The BC Audio products won great praise in the guitar magazines, especially for their great crunch tones.

Octal tubes have lower gain factors than the 12AX7, run at lower voltages, and are felt to have a warmer more complex tone. While a 12AX7 amplifier with two 6L6 power tubes will produce about 50 watts, an octal design with the same power tubes will be in the mid-30’s.

We’ve recently become exposed to octal guitar amplifiers through our association with Little Walter tube amps. We’ve also had the ability to directly compare the Little Walter 50 octal head with their “59” head (50 watts, nine-pin 12AX7 preamp).

While the 50 and 59 are not the same amplifier with different preamp tubes, they do highlight the characteristics of the two platforms. The octal 50 has a more organic feel, a slightly softer attack, and a smooth top end. It’s not spongy and loose in the way of a small Tweed, but it’s remarkably tactile. It’s got a enough clean headroom to work in almost any band situation, and distortion pedals produce a detailed linear crunch that is devoid of sharp peaks or emphasized frequencies.

The 59 has a more familiar feel, and while it’s not a “blackface” amplifier, the attack and response is more in line with a mid-power 12AX7 American-style amplifier. The 59’s cleans have more sparkle than the 50, and the low end is big, rich and percussive. Distortion pedal response is not as smooth as the 50, and there is more high end sizzle with the 59.

Without choosing sides, octal amplifiers offer the guitar player a demonstrably different feel and tone. With mainstream production dedicated towards 12AX7-based designs, octal amplifiers are decidedly more expensive, and limited to “boutique” builders. However, for a  player looking for more a more dynamic and tactile response without resorting to the limited headroom and squashed attack of a low powered amp, octal amplifiers offer a solid alternative.

 

G&L: What’s new for 2018?

February 10th, 2018

Doheny SH 2017 was a very active year for G&L and they’ve gained steam, rolling into 2018 with a lot of new products, features and a whole new look on their website. Let’s take a quick look at what’s new for 2018:

New Website – G&L has launched their new website, and it’s cleaner, more modern and better pictures and images. G&L is also clearly promoting their heritage, and the Leo Fender story in a more obvious fashion. Makes a lot of sense when your founder invented the modern solid body electric guitar and bass. They also have a new “CLF Research” Instagram and Facebook page.

It’s still a work in progress, and there are some guitars and options in my price book that are not on the site, and vice versa. So we are working through that, and if you have any questions, just check with us and we’ll get an answer.

NAMM – G&L had a booth at NAMM for the first time in many years. It was packed, very active, and they had some great one-off guitars on the wall (we snagged a couple). Phyllis Fender was on hand to sign copies of her new book about Leo Fender the man. It’s the story of Leo, not a history of Fender guitar. It’s a pretty quick read and quite insightful about a very unique and creative individual that did not even play guitar.

G&L Custom Shop – G&L has launched their Custom Shop concept, and there is a dedicated section on the website for custom shop guitars. There a new finishes — the nitro option is back — the availability of hand-wound and signed pickups off Leo’s original CLF pickup winder, mild aging if you want it, and in general a much higher level of attention and hands-on TLC. Considering how good the “factory” guitars currently are, this is a pretty high bar. It’s not clear how “custom” you can get, and this is a work in progress. I don’t have a enough detail to know if you can put P-90’s in a Doheny, make a single pickup Fallout with Solamente wiring, etc. It’s baby steps as they feel out the process, and if you are interested give us a shout and we’ll work through the process with you.

What’s Out – The SC-2 is gone for 2018. My feeling is that once the Fallout came along, that really took the air out the SC-2. It’s fun guitar but they still have the ASAT special and it’s the same pickups.

What’s New  – The Doheny was new for the fall of 2017 and they’ve now rolled out the Doheny Deluxe and Doheny Semi-Hollow. The Deluxe is a Flame Top guitar with wood binding and rear-mounted controls. But you don’t have to get binding, and what we also like about the Doheny is that Fixed or Vibrato bridge is the same price. Also the MAP for this guitar is $200 less than then similarly outfitted ASAT Deluxe.

The Doheny Semi-Hollow comes standard in swamp ash and also includes wood binding and rear mounted controls. Our feeling here it to opt for an Okoume back when ordering this guitar. Semi-hollow guitars tend to gain some nice harmonics, but lose a bit of low end. The Okoume back will add in a bit of roundness and warmth.

Also note there are no neck profile options on the Doheny. It’s a Modern Classic, but you can opt for a different radius. The Doheny has its own 21-fret neck, and it’s not tooled to handle all the other profiles. The “MCNK” seems to be very popular, so I think they are sticking with what most people want anyway.

Also new is the CLF Heritage L-2000. This is a throwback L-2000 with an 80’s neck profile, the cool 80’s metal control plate, glossy neck finish, and “Heritage” MFD pickups. It’s available in four colors and no options. To keep the weight down they are using Basswood on the solid colors and Okoume on the bursts. Both woods work very nice on a bass, with punchy and clear fundamental notes.

Not Sure – The Invader and Invader XL are still in my 2018 price book but not on the new website. I don’t think they are dead, but that there is a make-over in the process in terms of a more shred-friendly neck profile and other features. The Anderson/Suhr market is something G&L has yet to crack, and they’ve got their eye on it. The ASAT Fullerton Standard is on the website but also not in the price book, and I know that’s currently not in the plans.

While I’ve not scoured the prices in excruciating detail, nothing pops out, and all the base guitar MAP prices appear unchanged. Rosewood is now a $50 MAP option and “Caribbean Rosewood” (Chechen) is now the standard “brown” wood. We really like Chechen, and while it’s not as dark as Rosewood, it’s got really interesting grain and it feels nice and smooth. Due to CITES regulations Rosewood has become problematic, and the supply is erratic.

Neck Profiles – The 2018 book is not listing the V-profiles, U, the Wide C, or Heritage profile. But the website is. We’ll have to sort this out, and it could be that the wide range of profiles will be reserved for Custom Shop. I will lobby for the Soft-V though….

New Colors – Rally Red (sort of Fiesta), Galaxy Black (jet black with a subtle light metallic flake), Shell Pink, and Surf Green joins the permanent ranks. Yukon Gold Metallic is out, and they are working on a better replacement. Nobody really liked Yukon Gold, including G&L.

Overall we like what G&L has been up to, and while sometimes they run before they walk, it’s all with good intentions. They also maintain a presence on Social Media, which a lot of companies just don’t bother to do. That’s good for the brand image, brand value, and ultimately resale value. We think 2018 will be a great year for G&L, and let us know if you have any questions or comments at studio@upfrontguitars.com

 

Fender ’64 Deluxe Reverb Hand Wired – New Amp Day – Almost

January 29th, 2018

Fender 64 Deluxe Hand Wired

Being such a big fan of the “regular” Fender ’65 Deluxe Reissue Reverb, I quickly reserved a ’64 Deluxe Hand Wired as soon as I heard they were available. After all, what could be better: Hand wired with high quality components, pine cabinet, and reverb on both channels.

So with much anticipation it arrived early January from Sweetwater, the mega store we can’t help but like. Oddly enough around the same time I also purchased a used ’65 DRRI for the other guitar player in my band. He wanted one because he liked mine so much.  In some ways the used DRRI is closer to the ’64 Hand Wired model than my own DR, because mine came from the factory with a Celestion Blue (and blue tolex). The ’64 and ’65 both have the same Jensen C12Q speaker.

The ’64 DHW (Deluxe Hand Wired) is very pretty, the workmanship is great, and the grill cloth has a perfect old-but-not-worn look. The pine cabinet is nice, and the weight is super gig-friendly. I was not about to pull the chassis on a brand new amp, but I’m assuming they did a nice job inside too.

But in the end the ’64 DHW went back to Sweetwater, and my DHW experiment had ended. Why?

What I noticed right away — and so did my other guitar player — is that we don’t like the Jensen C12Q much. It might be authentic but it’s kind of thin sounding, and the breakup is a little raspy and rude. By jumping the output of the amp to various cabinets we quickly learned that we were both happier with the tone of the Blue, or other British voiced speakers. And also that a lot of the early breakup of the amp was the speaker and not the amp. With a different speaker the DHW does have better headroom and will handle pedals well at moderate stage volumes. For pedals it works best plugged into input #2, and I liked the slightly warmer tone of the Normal channel best. Now it’s easy enough to change a speaker, but I just paid $2499 for the amp, and did not feel like dropping up to $200+ on Blue or Warehouse Alnico.

Secondly, the DHW just sounded a little stressed and more hard edged than my Blue DRRI. Now this can be tubes, or a lot of other factors, but DHW sounded as though they maybe tweaked it to break up a little sooner and be a little louder. Almost as if it was biased too hot. Compared to my DRRI, the feel was different regardless of speaker: More urgent sounding, and less of the “give” that I like out of my DRRI.

Now I almost never leave anything alone, but at $2499, I wanted to love the amp as is, and not start tearing into it trying to get it where I wanted it to be. So Sweetwater happily accepted the return, and $65 of UPS later, it’s back home in Indiana. Where it will probably not stay for long.

Moral of the story: Speakers matter immensely. I already knew that, but this was a great reminder of how much of a difference they make. Also, I just like most “British” voiced speakers better even in an “American” amp. And while from a standpoint of tone and maintainability I like non-circuit board amplifiers, that alone is not the key to happiness. I really like my “blue” DRRI despite the fact it has a fragile (to repair or mod) Fender circuit board and pedestrian components. Lastly, no matter how much you love your guitar, the amp is at least 50% of the equation, probably more. Search out amplifiers as zealously as you search out guitars, and respect how much influence they have on your tone.

Guitars as Investments – IMHO

August 31st, 2017

lp-tightIs it a good idea in general to buy electric guitars as investments?

No.

That’s the short answer, and generally speaking I think it’s a good idea to purchase guitars that you like and want to play. While it’s true that some brands of guitars — Fender, Gibson, Martin, Rickenbacker for example — will appreciate over time, quite often it’s a long time and of course not every model. Yes, people are now paying some silly prices for 70’s Fenders, which were not even very good guitars to begin with. And we’re also talking about waiting almost 40 years for the guitar to be worth something. Just the idea that something is old does not make it of increased value.

Even if you got a really cool guitar cheap, the rate of appreciation is generally very slow. Maybe you got a great R9 Les Paul in mint condition, but it’s not a house: You can’t sit on it for 3-4 years and flip it. While it’s certainly possible that it holds its value well, it does not mean it’s going to go up. If you want a guitar that really holds its value, buy a Rickenbacker. They have a great combination of quality, history and scarcity. Hardly the all-around rock guitar, but if you’re obsessed with resale, you’ll get a good chunk of your money back. Used guitars that really take a beating? Almost any import guitar not from Japan (sometimes Korea) and valued-priced USA guitars like PRS S2 and various ~$1000 Gibson’s.  They are not bad guitars, but they are appliances, not works of art.

Manufacturers also make it difficult for investors by making increasingly good new guitars. The idea that only old stuff is good, is just not true. In fact a lot of old instruments are highly variable in quality. The hard to define “mojo” of an old guitar is often psychosomatic, and players love the concept of old stuff, and will make themselves believe that it is special. If you spend $2000 on a 1970’s Fender with a 1/4″ thick polyester finish and a 3-bolt neck are no getting a “vintage” guitar? In name only.

Manufacturers also make it difficult for investors by making way too many versions of the same guitar. When somebody gives us a Les Paul or Strat to sell (especially Les Paul) we spend a chunk of time trying to figure out what it’s really worth. Gibson makes so many darn versions of the Les Paul (Traditional, Traditional Plus, Tribute, Studio, Awesome Maximus…) it’s truly hard to figure out what the guitar is worth. Go on Reverb.com and there will be around 300 Les Paul’s from $800 to $5000. Strats are not much better: I’m mean really, how many versions of a “Clapton” Strat can you make? Quite a few, it turns out. All this just confuses the market and makes it hard to assign value.

Lastly, then you have dealers that frequently skirt MAP pricing rules for new guitars. So what you say? Selling a guitar blatantly below MAP depresses the price of a used guitar by deflating its new value. No matter how you feel about MAP, strong MAP enforcement helps the value of used guitars. Companies that protect their brand value (Bose, Mesa for example) enjoy higher perceived value and better resale. Companies that let retailers run amok pay for it in the long run.

As a G&L dealer, I often hear the comment, “Great guitars but I wish the resale value was better.” I’ve come to realization that G&L’s fare no better or worse than most Gibson’s and Fenders. It just that Gibson and Fender owners think their guitars are worth more. In the end, the relationship between street price and used prices are not appreciably different (But the Gibson owner is disappointed and the G&L owner says, “Ok thanks for selling if or me.”). I just sold a left handed mid-2000’s ASAT Classic in nice condition for $849. The guitar probably went new for a little over $1000. Took about 10 days to sell. That’s a boatload better than I’ll do trying to sell a 3-year old Les Paul that had an original list of $3600.

Play what you like, have fun, and if you love the guitar, keep it. If you don’t like the guitar, sell it an move on. Guitars are a passion, a hobby, and for some a profession. For a precious few, they are an investment.

CITES, Rosewood, and G&L Alternatives for Fretboards

August 23rd, 2017

G&L Rosewood FretboardIf you are interested in buying a G&L guitar and live in the USA, you can skip over this blog (unless you are curious). However if you live outside of the USA, as of January 1st, 2017 things got a little complicated.

CITES, the international organization that protects wildlife (animals as well as plants) implemented new restrictions on the use and export of Rosewood. Essentially Rosewood became a restricted material, and products containing Rosewood are now required to have documentation to verify that they are legally harvested.

How did this happen? It’s all about demand, and mostly in China where the expanding middle class developed a particular appetite for Rosewood furniture. The spike in demand created over-harvesting and illegal harvesting. Rather than see Rosewood wiped out, regulations have been put in place. You can debate the logic and methodology, but something needed to be done. Also note that “Rosewood” is a rather generic term that includes many varieties including Cocobolo, Bubinga, etc.

What are the practical implications?

The short story is that new guitars containing Rosewood manufactured after January 1st 2017 that are going to be exported out of the USA, need documentation verifying the sourcing of the Rosewood. Manufacturers have to apply for the paperwork and permits to export guitars containing Rosewood. There is of course a lot more to it than that, but that is the quick summary.

Dealers (like me) in most cases do not have this type of documentation; it’s the manufacturer that holds the permit. So most dealers will not be able to ship a post-January 2017 guitar with rosewood out of the country. It stands the risk of being confiscated at customs, and nobody gets the guitar back.

Guitars built before January 2017 can be shipped out of the country provided they have a re-export certificate. These are obtained from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The certificates cost money, and take time to obtain. A dealer can also apply for a “Master File” and purchase re-export certificates in advance, but it’s still a process. Suffice to say, many dealers are just not going to bother with exporting a guitar with Rosewood.

This is bad for independent dealers selling overseas but a boon for distributors. International distributors buying directly from the manufacturer will get legally documented product, and far less competition from independent dealers exporting into their home country.

Non-commercial (person-to-person) sales are technically exempt. I can imagine this becoming a loophole as some dealers will have a relative or friend be the shipper of record on a guitar going out of the country.

G&L Alternatives

Aside from the occasional fancy top or limited editions, Rosewood on a G&L guitar is limited to the fretboard. The obvious alternatives are Maple and Ebony. Those materials can be exported freely without additional documentation.

If you are not partial to those materials, G&L has also started using a material called Chechen, also known as “Caribbean Rosewood.” It’s a hard and dense Central American hardwood that looks and feels very much like Rosewood. It has a more color variation than most rosewood, but it’s attractive and a good substitute. Most important is that is not subject to any restrictions and is widely available. Dealers with international customers looking for a way around Rosewood should consider Chechen.

Have an Open Mind

Traditional tone woods are just that: Traditional. They have obvious desirable qualities, but what they also have in common was that at the the time they were first used, they were widely available. And there were a lot fewer people on the earth. Guitar builders have been exploring new materials for decades, and many alternatives have been proven to be just as good as the traditional woods. Just like it very hard to get totally black ebony these days, guitar players will have to adjust to other paradigm shifts in guitar materials. In many cases the adjustment is more mental than sonic. Conventional wisdom dies a slow death, and there will always be players that cling to whatever “old way” they hold most dear.

If you want to play it totally safe, just avoid Rosewood. There are lots of other good materials both synthetic and natural. If you have your heart set on Rosewood, the sky isn’t falling, but obtaining that Rosewood guitar may take more diligence and planning.

 

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.