Upfront Guitars – My personal rig rundown

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.


David Allen Humbucker pickups – Impressions

David Allen P-51 Zebra set

When we carry a line of pickups, we try to do our best to get real playing time with them, and not just write what the manufacturer says about them. With some help from our new Sales Associate Eric, we’ve been swapping a lot of pickups lately. This includes three of David Allen’s more popular humbucker sets: Alley Cat, P-51, and Dirty Cat. On a relative scale these can sort of be characterized as “light, medium, and hot” in that order. Bear in mind though that the Dirty Cats are far from hot in comparison to some of the brutally strong pickups from a number of winders out there including Seymour Duncan, Bare Knuckles and others. As we said, it’s all relative.

With all three sets we got a chance to try them in both a mid-priced (Godin Core HB) and a higher end guitar (Knaggs Kenai). We tried then both at practices, jam sessions, and some real-life gigging situations. So while we have full write-ups on our David Allen product page, here are some quick impressions on living with the pickups.

Alley Cats – Patterned after the ’57 style of PAF, these Alnico 2 humbucker pickups are super clean and articulate. In the Core the neck pickup gets very close to a single coil sound, and while the bridge pickup sounds a little light on clean settings, it’s dynamite with some gain. The lower output, softer Alnico magnetic field and general “free” nature of the pickup generates spacious and singing rock tones that have multiple layers of harmonic detail. Maybe not the ticket of you desire something tight and modern, but gigging with our Kenai it was marvelously expressive. For my taste, the neck did not have quite enough “push” for singing solo work, but compared to many Alnico 2 neck pickups it was much less flabby on the low end. Hot pickups are not the only way to rock.

P-51 – David Allen’s take on the ’59 PAF, although it’s not really built like a PAF. The P-51 uses Alnico 4 magnet material, which has a fairly low magnetic pull, but more attack than an Alnico 2. Some people describe it as a cross between Alnico 3 and 5. Compared to the Alley Cats, the P-51 set was warmer with more midrange push at the neck, and gave up a little bit of top end brightness. It works better with gain, and kicks out some good blues tones without getting mushy or smeared. At the bridge the P-51 has a little more attack and snap, and for straight clean tones is probably a little more satisfying. Distortion tones are slightly tighter and more dense than the Alley Cat, and it’s a real toss up which I like better.

Dirty Cats – While the inductance (output) of the Dirty Cats is very similar to P-51’s, the DC resistance is at a level where you do start to hear it in the clean settings. Both pickups have a little bit of a midrange bump that makes the Dirty Cats a little less open and free sounding. However, they both turn down really well, and with a little volume roll-off lose lose most of their midrange congestion. The neck pickup uses Alnico 5 magnet materials, which gives it good attack and helps tighten up the midrange. It sounded very good in the wrap-tail bridge Core, but in the brighter sounding Kenai was a little “stringy” with a slight metallic edge. The bridge pickup is an interesting hybrid of Alnico 2 magnets and an un-vintage 11K DC resistance. It manages to be reasonably open sounding while also being the most “modern” voiced pickup in this roundup; with densely packed harmonics, and tight responsive low end crunch.

The Verdict – If you are in a wide-ranging cover band or just play an eclectic mix of music, the P-51 is a good choice, and our favorite. It’s very good at most things, and bad at nothing. Or if you tastes run a little heavier, opt for the Dirty Cats, which would kill at everything from Foo Fighters to modern Stadium-style Country. If you are into jazz, blues, or earlier classic rock (not 80’s), the Alley Cats really excel. The bridge pickup is “the tone” that defines a lot of classic 60’s and 70’s tunes, and for cleans the neck pickup is the clearest and most touch sensitive of the group.

Guitar Finishes: Is Lacquer really better than Poly?

In the guitar world, there are two major categories of chemistries used to finish electric and acoustic guitars. One is the traditional “Nitro” nitrocellulose finish, and one is the modern “Poly” or polyurethane finish.

Early guitars used the Nitro style finish because that was the available chemistry of the day for both classical instruments and electric guitars. Many of the techniques for making classical instruments transferred directly to electric guitars, especially the traditional set-neck hollow body models.

Nitro finishes have many desirable qualities: They are thin, repairable, flexible, and don’t inhibit the vibrations of the wood. For a purely acoustic instrument these are highly desirable qualities, and a bad finish will kill the tone of an acoustic instrument. Nitro finishes are also labor intensive to apply, slow, are highly flammable, and toxic. They are a VOC (volatile organic compound) and subject to environmental limitations. Special permits are required to have a spray booth that uses lacquer finishes, which also raises the cost.

The Knaggs Kenai is a Nitrocellulose finish

From a pure standpoint of manufacturing efficiency and cost, the more modern Poly finishes are the dominant method. They cure using a catalyst, which can be accelerated with heat or UV light, and compared to a Nitro finish, can be applied in a fraction of the time. They are also extremely glossy, durable, and don’t tend to crack or check over time.

The wrap on a Poly finish is that they are thick and inflexible, and don’t allow the instrument to vibrate and resonate as well as a lacquer finish. This is completely possible, but there are many variables in how the finish is applied, the amount of wood fillers, undercoats, etc. Environmentally conscious companies such as Taylor have put a lot of research into thin, flexible modern coatings that provide great sound quality but are safe for the environment and their employees.

Almost all G&L guitars are a Poly finish

Lacquer finishes by their very nature are a good match for instruments, but their cost makes them viable only on higher end products. So are Nitro guitars better sounding because of the finish, or better sounding because they are only applied to guitars of higher overall quality? It’s probably a little of both, and because of that it’s hard to separate the two.

Some players will only play Nitro guitars, and if you have the means to own that level of instrument, you’re unlikely to be disappointed. However, a guitar is always the sum of its parts and workmanship, and finish is just one of the components. Nitro guitars make up a tiny fraction of the market, so obviously there are scores of wonderful guitars made every year utilizing modern finish chemistries. The finishing method is an indicator, but always let your ears be the guide.