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Four Rock Bands you should know better

February 22nd, 2013

If you’re like me, you have favorite band or two that you’ve always wondered why they were not better known or more famous. You know, interesting lyrics, hooky melodies, great guitar work, but for some reason they just don’t make it big. I’d like to nominate four bands to that list, and all of them had minor or major hits in the mid 90’s. If fact you’ve probably heard them in your local grocery store or Outback restaurant. While that might sound like abject failure musically, the residuals still help keep some of these bands on the road. So without further adieu, here are my four under-appreciated favorites.

Dada – Now on their 20th anniversary tour this winter (2013), Dada had a couple hits in the mid 90’s with “Dizz Knee Land” and “Dim” on college and progressive radio. Certainly the edgiest of my picks, Dada combines Beatle-like harmonies with sometimes disturbing lyrics, and some of the best guitar playing anywhere courtesy of Michael Gurley. Their songs can range from bleak scenes of despair to naive optimism, and all of it somehow hummable. Truly a great band that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. All their albums are worthy, but if you buy just one, get Puzzle. But don’t buy just one. They tour very infrequently, and if you can catch their 20th anniversary tour, you will not be sorry.

Del Amitri – From Scotland, Del Amitri’s big hit “Roll To Me” is still pounding out of restaurant speakers all over the country. It’s a shame, as they crafted many sophisticated pop songs with a slightly punk edge that makes Oasis look like total amateurs. From distorted driving rockers to sensitive acoustic numbers, Del Amitri was another band putting out finely crafted tunes just as the world was embracing grunge. We can thank grunge for killing hair metal, but their was collateral damage along the way. Their strongest album is probably Twisted.

Fastball – This Texas trio came to prominence with a song called “The Way” in the mid 90’s and despite a couple other minor hits and a series of solid releases remains relatively obscure. Despite their obvious Beatles influence, Fastball dabbles in almost every musical style and it’s worth noting that their big hit was actually a Rumba….on FM radio. In terms of material, Fastball was not a flash in the pan, and in many ways each album got lyrically and musically stronger. It’s hard to pick their best, and their latest release, 2009’s Little White Lies is as good as any. Fastball still tours somewhat erratically, and stays close to their home base in Texas.

Sister Hazel – Still a college campus favorite, Sister Hazel hit it big with their song “All For You” in the mid nineties, still tours mainly on the East Coast, and is a mainstay of the Rock Boat cruise. Certainly my most mainstream pick, Sister Hazel’s blend of sunny upbeat pop, tight harmonies and solid guitar work is hard to resist. They are not immune to fads and trends, and not all of Sister Hazel’s releases are stellar. For example, take their current dalliance with vacuous country-rock on Heartland Highway. That being said, Heartland Highway is way better than most vacuous country rock on the radio today, but Fortress strikes me as their most consistently solid effort. Always a good live show, and they seem like genuinely regular people.

Guitar Pedals – What’s with all the Stomp Boxes?

February 10th, 2013

On a recent business trip, I took along a recent edition of Guitar Player to read on the plane. In that issue they had a special section where they reviewed sixty guitar pedals. Sixty. Six Zero. Even at that, there were several well known brands that were not even represented! Every day it seems that there is a new boutique pedal maker out there with a new take on and old classic, and occasionally something really different. What is going on?

In the interest of full disclosure, UpFront Guitars does not sell many pedals. Honestly, I have found that it’s a bad fit for my business model, and I don’t do well with them. To be taken seriously, you need to carry lots of brands, and there is a lot of competition from the eBay used pedal market where players are frequently dumping their latest experiments in sonic bliss. Also, many of the boutique builders sell direct, so there you are carrying somebody’s pedal and they are selling against you. In that case why have dealers? But this is not about sour grapes, it’s about why there are so many darned pedals out there. I have a few theories:

Low barrier to entry – As I have said in previous writings, it’s not hard to get in the pedal business: Buy a die-cast box, a soldering iron, benchmark a few classic designs, and you’re in business. OK, not that easy, but a lot easier than making a guitar and much better certainty of sales. Pickups have become this way too. The raw materials are very easy to obtain, and boutique winders have sprung up all over the place. Most of these “noveau” builders are not breaking any new ground, so it’s hard to say what they are doing other than saturating the market. This is not to denigrate the folks that are really turning out new imaginative product, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a ton of me-too stuff out there.

The 2009 Recession – The recession in 2009 was bad for a lot of things, including musical instrument sales. The only category that grew during that time was effects. People still wanted to buy some type of new toy, but had to watch their wallet. Stomp boxes fit the bill even when guitar and amp sales were tanking.

Modeling Amps – Is it just me, or does it seem as though the craze over modeling amps has blown over? Aside from really sophisticated stuff like the Fractal, Eleven Rack, and Kemper, many amps have sort of gone “basic” again. Possbily buyers have decided it’s more flexible to have a couple pedals than it is to buy a box of so-so “amps” in the form of a sterile sounding combo amp. To me, the affordable modeling stuff has typically sounded blah to occasionally awful, and most players settle in on one or two sounds anyway.

Active secondary market – This is also known as “used pedals”. Don’t like what you just bought? You can probably get 60% of your money back in ten days on eBay. Most players don’t keep pedals long enough to wear them out, and the Next Greatest Thing is often for sale used a few weeks after they hit the streets. It’s not nearly so easy to sell your amp if you don’t like it, and shipping it can be daunting.

Cheaper than Amplifiers – The amp market is pretty terrible these days, especially at the upper end where even some of the well-known names are struggling to move product. There are also lots of “used” amplifiers for sale dirt cheap as dealers try to unload inventory while trying to respect MAP pricing (which further depresses new amp sales). Plus look at the well known amp builders that are now making pedals: Mesa, Bogner and Rivera to name a few. All three of these companies make expensive amplifiers, and the market for high end stuff is limited (and an imported “value” line can hurt your image). If you cannot sell someone an amplifier, sell them the essence of your amplifier in a box. While fundamentally I maintain that a great amp is worth your hard earned money, it’s tempting to do a pedal-makeover to breathe some new life into your old rig. I’m not sure that a pedal will make a bad amp good, but the economics are tempting. I have carried some of the Rivera pedals, and while they are good they violate an important rule: Price. Keep it under $179 and it’s almost an impulse buy. Price it at $250 or higher and buyers look elsewhere.

The theory of “What the heck” – What other product promises the ability to transform your sound at such a low price? Plus installation could not be easier: Just plug it in. It’s not like a pickup, which requires some dis-assembly, soldering, and the risk that it won’t sound good (some makers like Seymour Duncan now offer solder-less pickups to lower the skill barrier). Pedals are like a new diet shake or a magic wrinkle cream that promise so much for so little effort. It’s actually marketing genius; and has certainly been a boon for magazine advertising, stores and e-tailers.

But do stomp boxes really transform our playing enjoyment, or just give us a shiny new object to chase instead of playing our guitars? The music industry benefits from this constant “pedal churn” but does the player? To me, pedals are like pizza: Most of them are pretty good, and rarely are they awful. Yes, there are some “bad” pedals out there, but I don’t think it takes a lifetime to find a few pretty good ones to form your core sound. My board has been pretty solid the past three years, and is mostly gain pedals, one modulation pedal, and a reverb. Some were carefully chosen and some were just cheap, like a BBE Minder Bender because I needed chorus for a couple songs and did not want to spend a lot. So what’s on there now is:

  • Peterson Strobe Tuner
  • Lovepedal Kalamazoo
  • JHS Charlie Brown
  • Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive (ten years and running)
  • BBE Mind Bender
  • Lee Jackson Mr. Springy Reverb

That’s it, and I used my own “brand” of Evidence Monorail patch cables. Plus I don’t have any more room on the PedalTrain. I have been messing around with a Voodoo Lab Giggity, which is not even an effect so much as it is a parametric EQ of sorts. But I like it, and if it stays, something may have to go.

I do like other pedals: A have a Fulldrive that I used to play a lot, and I like a lot of the Wampler stuff, but it’s not as if they get me to some new musical place. If I don’t like the way I sound, it’s probably me and not the pedal. If your new pedal makes you want to play more, that’s great. If it just makes you want to re-arrange your board instead of playing, that’s not great. For a person who sells gear, this is dangerous advice. But I guess there is no quick route to being a great musician, and pedals are not the musical equivalent of Rogain. Playing, playing with other people, and optionally playing live are what really makes us better. Everybody has heard a great guitar player in a guitar store making a $150 guitar sound good. There’s a reason for that: Practice, and the gift of talent. We can’t all be gifted, but we can all practice.