Category Archives: Musical Equipment

Music Gear Part 2

Hey all – Hope your Thanksgiving was good and now we’re moving to the time of presents.

Last entry was about guitars and all the different options. In this entry we will discuss amplifiers.

I’m going to reduce the list to 5 types of amps. Keep in mind that used gear from Craig’s List or Ebay can be a real cost savings here.

  1. Tube amps. This is an old technology going back to the early 20th century. The idea of using vacuum tubes (also called “valves”) was the standard way of amplifying guitars. These amps are preferred by “purists” who want to chase the tones of say Hendrix, Clapton, Slash or Page. They have a thicker, “warmer” tone. Characteristics about tube amps are: a) They are more expensive than most other types of amps, b) they are heavier and c) you need less wattage. While 400 watt tube amps exist, you won’t need that much. And there is a belief that the harder you push a tube amp, the better it sounds. Stick with 25 or 50 watts. I have such an amp (50 watts) and it’s plenty loud.
  2. Solid State amps – they came on the scene more aggressively in the 80’s as a cheaper, lighter alternative to tube amps. I’ve used this type quite a bit as well. You may need to play with the signal processing to get a warm tone (think EQ). You also need more watts in a solid state amp to compete with tube amps in volume. Whereas 25 or 50 watts would be fine for tube, solid state amps will probably be around the 100 mark (unless mic’ed to the PA)
  3. Hybrid amps – these are a combination of tube and solid state amps. The tubes are typically in the “pre-amp” section.
  4. Modeling amps – this has really come on strong in the last 15 years or so. Line 6 is a leading supplier of tube amps but now everybody from Fender to Marshall has gotten into the game. Modeling amps use the circuit design of their amp to “program”, as closely as possible, known amplifier sounds, like a Marshall Plexi or a Fender Twin Reverb. Sometimes they work great, other times not – you’ll need to play with it some to determine if that’s the sound for you. The pro is you can use a lot of different sounds out of a modeling amp if you’re a top 40 or classic rock kind of guitarist or a musician who wants to play a lot of different styles. The con would be if say you were in a Van Halen tribute band and you need Eddie’s sound in particular, a modeling amp may not cut it.
  5. Profiler amps – so far only Kemper out of Germany is the only game in town for Profiling. This idea has caught on because where with modeling, sound engineers need to program the models (and thus we wait for patches with new models), profilers make digital copies of amps using the Kemper head. For example, if you have a Marshal JVC and a Fender Deluxe, you can profile each of your amps and put them in an 11 pound Kemper head, and run direct out to the PA. In fact the idea has caught on so well, many people are selling profiles of their amps. Michael Brit is a well known profiler and most profiles come at $20 a profile, which means you can build up a collection over time.

So those are the types of amps – other considerations are combo amp or use of amp and head.

Combo amps are a combination of amplifier and speaker in one cabinet. They typically do not come with wheels, but a single handle on top (think heavy suitcase kind of lifting) and one to two speakers (typically 10″ or 12″ speakers for guitars). Combo amps can be tube, solid state, modeling or hybrid.

An amp head and cabinet off more flexibility of tone. They come in two flavors: half stack (amp head + 4 speaker cabinet) and full stack (amp head + lower cab with 4 speakers and upper cab with 4 speakers). The full stack is overkill unless you are playing outdoors or some extremely loud style of metal or rock. It’s just not needed.

Something else to consider here for performance : mic’ing the amp to the PA. Consider this for combo amps at least. The guitar is a higher frequency instrument and is thus fairly uni-directional. In other words, people can hear me when they are in direct line with my amp, but if they cross the room they cannot. Putting a mic on the amp, even for a half stack, is a good idea for better spread.

If you’re looking to cut corners or just looking for a practice amp, there is a lot of competition in that area – they will mostly be solid state combos.

The best thing to do is find a music store that doesn’t mind if you play an amp or several amps over some time. Some even offer rooms where you can crank it. The hard part is playing in a store, or your bedroom, or your garage is not going to sound like when you play a club or a High School. The acoustics will be very different and be prepared to make adjustments.

One last consideration – hauling it! If you’re going to get a Marshall full stack, you need to have a truck, SUV or van to haul it, plus your guitars, plus the rest of the gear.

Merry Christmas! Now go get some gear!

Music Gear part 1

Hey all – welcome back to Fast Fingers Guitar Lessons. The holidays are approaching like an invading army and you might be tempted to ask for new music gear or get new music gear for that shredder in your family.

Before rushing into your local Guitar Center (or not-so-local amazon online) let’s cover some basics in order not to break the bank. This post will be centered on guitars. Next post will be on amplifiers.

As we look at the whole “signal chain” – guitar -> effects -> amp nothing is more intimate to a guitar player than the guitar itself. That would be the building block I would start with if I was going to try for a new sound.

Acoustic guitars – these actually get pretty pricey pretty quick. The wood here is very important, as well as the craftsmanship. From my observation, $250 doesn’t take you as far in the acoustic world as it does in the electric world.

Well known names like Martin are like the Les Paul in electrics. Unless you want to pay starting around $500, I would look for the Japanese brands – such as Yamaha and Ibanez. You’ll also need to decide if you’re going to go with the Classical style (nylon strings) or Standard (Steel strings). I would recommend Classical only if you plan to play classical music. The nylon strings are not as loud and it’s difficult to bend them if you plan to play rock or pop.

I will say you typically should not order a guitar like this online unless you picked it out in a local store and there’s a better price break on line. Even then, give your friendly salesman a heads up and they might just cut a deal with you there. I’ve seen it. And this way you don’t have to wait for UPS.

Electric guitars – there are several econo-entries in the guitar world. Fender Squires and Ibanez value packs that come with a gig bag and practice amp are really quite affordable (typically around $250) for the beginning shredder. If you’re beginning, this should give you a guitar to grow into.

Some things to avoid on an entry – level guitar: stay away from fancy electronics. Stay away from vibrato bars (aka Whammy bars or tremolo bars). Why? This hardware needs to be of decent quality to stay in tune. I would look in a more expensive model of guitar for something like that.

If you’re getting out of the entry level position, I would greatly encourage you to try out guitars. There is no one perfect guitar except for what YOU say it is. If you need an amp at the same time, start with a guitar that is “playable” that feels good to your hands. For the heck of it, try some guitars out of your price range too – nothing wrong with that. It will help give you perspective.

And remember, the fancier the paint job on the guitar, the higher the price is. If you don’t care about color, go for something solid.

Things to look for:

Neck – rosewood or maplewood? Most guitars are rosewood. There is a bit of a difference in feel. If you’re a Fender man (think Stratocaster or Telecaster) most likely it’s going to have a Maple fretboard and be brighter sounding. Rosewood is a darker sound. Neither is right or wrong. Close your eyes and see if you can hear the difference. If you’re a Stevie Ray Vaughn fan you’ll probably love the sound. If you’re a Slash fan, you’ll want something thicker sounding.

Frets – If you love strats, you get 21 frets. Most other guitars have 22. If you want to shred with the best of them, you might want 24 (2 octaves from the open string). You may want “Jumbo” frets but don’t get caught up in the hype. I play plenty of guitars with standard height frets.

Tuners – In my opinion, I haven’t had a problem with tuners. Grover is the gold Cadillac of tuners and I’ve never owned a set. Maybe I don’t now what I’m missing? If you go with a lock nut system, it doesn’t matter too much.

Nut / Bridge – now you’ll need to decide if you want a whammy bar or not. Standard guitars come with a standard nut and fixed bridge of various types. Strats come with a Tremolo bridge but with no locking nut (unless you pay to have one put on). I have a strat and I do not use the trem bar.

For Trem Bridges, Floyd Rose is gold standard, although I’ve had my issues with them in the past. Ibanez makes their own kind of trem which I believe is superior (less wobble in the neutral position). Kahler makes trem bridges but on the one guitar I have with a Kahler it doesn’t stay in tune. I’d stick with Floyd or Ibanez. But if you just have to try it, try it.

Pickups – This, like everything else, is a very personal topic. There are single coil (think Strat), humbucker (think Les Paul), active (EMG – requires a battery) or passive (any pickup that doesn’t require a battery).

Single coil are great for that thin, snappy sound. They can be noisy – thus the “hum” that is “bucked” by the humbucker. That can be addressed to some degree with a compressor, but that’s in effects.

Humbucker, or double coil pickups, are a bit hotter than single coil. This is a huge market. Most guitar manufacturers make their own, celebrities market their own, and some just have a great reputation. This is very individual again. I got to play my Ibanez Steve Vai 7 string model live once and it has DImarzios – and they sang. They were beautiful. It’s difficult to know what a pickup is going to sound like until you give it some volume.

EMG’s (and there are others) are considered active pickups and have a 9volt battery in them – they boost the output. These are common in guitars suited for metal playing.

If you are the do-it-yourself type, you might like to experiment – buy a couple of pickups, drop them into your guitar, and play them loud – band practice or at a gig. Check the return policy first though.

Honorable mention: Modeling guitars. As things get more and more digital, we have modeling guitars that can simulate (or try to simulate) strats, les pauls, Jazz guitars, acoustic 12 strings, and a knob for changing the tuning (need Drop D tuning? Hold that dial!). I have one – a Line 6 Variax and have gigged with it for years because it is a playable guitar.

I left out one more type, but these are among the most expensive. So for the guitarist that has everything, there are Signature guitars. Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Randy Rhodes, Dime Bag Darrell, Synister, Rusty Cooley, Steve Vai, Joe Satrianni, etc., etc., etc. all have sig guitars. You don’t even have to be alive to have one.

I own 2 signature guitars, both are 7 string. One is the Steve Vai JEM 7v7 and the other is the Rusty Cooley Dean RC7. The reason why I bought them is after trying all the 7 strings I could lay my hands on, I didn’t like any of them. I figure if someone is going to hang their rep on a guitar it should be decent. But I paid for it. The Vai guitar was over $2k. The Dean – more like $900 and it is less than perfect.

So once you have your sweaty little hands all over your new precious axe, it’s time to go amp shopping.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving on 11!!!

Spencer

Product Review : Tascam GB10

Hi All –

Well, my birthday is coming up.  And if you’re like me, you need to help people know what you want or you’ll end up with another shirt to fill your closet 🙂

One of my long time friends and former students used Tascam equipment to practice with.  When I came over to jam, he’d usually play background tracks on it.  I thought it was cool, but didn’t really pay too much attention to it.

Then one of my current students got the Tascam GB10 and not being very technical, he had me help him set it up.  It’s not too confusing once you do it for the first time.

As a guitar player and teacher, I figure out most things by ear.  Once in a while I’ll look up tab on the internet, but most of the time it’s wrong (sorry guys) or incomplete.  Hey at least they’re sharing what they know, but for me, I want it to be right.

Since music is all digital now, I wanted some software that would slow the mp3 player down, but not affect the pitch.  There are several ones out there but I couldn’t make any of them work for me.  Either I couldn’t figure it out, or it was buggy.

Once I got my student’s Tascam loaded up with the right file type, he plugged it in and didn’t quite know what to do with it.  It was Lynyrd Skynyrd but Ronnie Van Zant sounded like a girl.  I finally got it adjusted down to the right key for him.

So I asked for one of these things for my birthday.  oddly, it isn’t available on musiciansfriend.com or sweetwater.com.  But it is available on Amazon so there’s where it came from.

It uses 2 AA batteries (or it can run of a wall plug, NOT INCLUDED – same thing with my Kindle Fire – why do they do that??).  It comes with one cord to plug into the USB port on the guitar.

So get the batteries in, plug into your computer, turn on the Tascam unit and it says “Power / Storage” – I took the Storage option.  This loads the unit’s directory in the Windows Explorer or Mac Finder.

Next, you need your music files in one of two formats: MP3 or WAV.  If you try an MP4 Tascam won’t display it.

Luckily, we use mostly MP3’s in the band so I had plenty to pick from.  (Note: if you’re plucking tunes from iTunes, you can export them as WAV files – that’s what I did for my student).  I had about 6 band tunes in mp4 format, but downloaded a free converter via cnet and voila!  I had MP3’s.

Then it’s a matter of dragging your mp3 files unto the music directory on the Tascam.  Unplug the unit and it will turn itself off.

Next, I plugged in my headphone in the headphone jack of the unit, my guitar into the guitar jack, and then you have to adjust the volume on the side so you can hear your guitar.  Then you have to make sure on the playback screen that “input” is “on” – by default it’s off.

Next, I found a song that I wanted to double check my chart with – “8 Second Ride”.  The introduction has given me problems on that one before and I’ve changed my chart twice.  Listening to it with headphones and slowing it down to about half speed, and immediately I found my mistake.  I was one note off.

Then in the same song, there is a lead part that is played throughout the song – I fixed a wrong note in that one too, plus it was easier to figure out the higher harmony part of the two guitar lead.  So on my first song, I fixed two mistakes I was making and figured out an additional part.  Not a bad beginning by any means.

I worked on another song that has a tricky intro – “A Woman Like You”.  Again, I could hear everything much easier when it’s slowed down and I can “loop” a section indefinitely if I need to keep hearing it.

The Tascam slows things down in 10% increments, which some people in other reviews didn’t like – they wanted finer control over this.  However, that works fine for me.

The Tascam can also change the Key of the music (as noted above in my student’s Lynyrd Skynyrd song).  I’m not sure if I need to use that at this point, but could come in handy later if we change  a key for vocal reasons.  It might also help with artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Van Halen who tune down a half step.  Why re tune the guitar when you can press a button?

You can also record with this thing but I haven’t gotten that far with it yet.

So for $112, it’s a bit pricey but if you can call in some birthday or Christmas favors it might be worth it.  I’m glad I got it.  I’m also working on Stevie Ray Vaughn’s version of VooDoo Chile and there are 2 or 3 bursts of notes in his solo that I can definitely use this tool on.

Happy Jamming!

Spencer

 

Band Thoughts, Banjo Thoughts, and Line 6 Thoughts

Hey everybody –

There have been three things bouncing around in my head lately, and only the last two subjects are related, but I figured I could combine them into one post.

Band Thoughts:

I recently watched “The History of the Eagles” on Showtime.  This 3 hour long documentary is also available to rent on Netflix.  It covers the time from Glenn Frey’s and Don Henley’s childhoods, to how they met up in California, how the Eagles formed in the early 1970’s, how they broke up in 1980, solo careers, their reunion in the early 90’s and subsequent line-up changes.

I’m not a huge Eagles fan, though I really like “Hotel California” and teach the two lead solos, which impressed me for they’re melodic content. Same thing with “One of These Nights”.  But beyond that, I didn’t know much about them.

So why waste 3 hours of your precious time to watch this documentary?  To me it’s always interesting how bands form.  I’ve formed a few myself and they are fragile things.  But nothing keeps a band going like success, even if you have to change a member or two.  And the Eagles were one of the all time most successful hit makers.  I didn’t realize just how many songs they had that I was familiar with, even though I never bought an album from them.

If you’re looking at this as in how to get tips to “make it”, well, it’s still a chance combination of talent, chemistry between band members, and some good old fashioned luck. You can work on the first part, but the second two are hard.  I’ve often said, and it is repeated in this documentary, that being in a band is like being in a marriage – more so for these guys who travelled, slept, and ate together for years.  You’re going to get on each other’s nerves, it’s inevitable.

I think what saddened me was the end piece.  The Eagles reunited, and it seemed like all bad fights had been forgotten.  But a new one emerged: Glenn Frey and Don Henley wanted to draw up legal contracts insisting they get paid more than the other members of the band.  Their guitarist Don Felder didn’t agree, but went along with it for some time and was finally kicked out for his disagreements and his questions.

Frey’s and Henley’s argument was that after the band broke up, they both had hit singles throughout the 1980’s, keeping the Eagles name out there (according to them).  Felder’s argument was just because those two had better solo careers has nothing to do with the Eagles.

I tend to side with Felder on this.  First, with all their hits (and don’t forget royalties are paid for hit songs every time they are broadcasted or used – it can be a lot of money) – Frey and Henley were already rich.

Also, the Eagles had a very collaborative song writing method.  Everybody contributed.  Everybody sang.  Everybody wrote.  Everybody had sang lead vocals on some hit tunes.  Their band members carry a heavier load than most other band members.  Don Felder claimed “The whole band was greater than the sum of it’s parts”.  I agree and wish Felder well.  (Felder does the first guitar lead on Hotel California which is pretty darn good).

Banjo

As I am now in the Turbo Fuegos band, and the line up is complete, we’ve been digging into the material and trying to get ready for our first gig.  On some of our tunes, the banjo is really featured.  I never thought much about banjo, but it’s effect is undeniable in some songs (like “Save a Horse” by Big And Rich).  So I began looking into owning one.

They aren’t terribly expensive – at least not the introductory ones.  $200 will land you one.  But I found out, there’s about 3 different models of banjo – 4 string, 5 string and 6 string.  And more tunings too just to make it fun.  For someone who just wanted to add it to some particular songs, I had to know what I would be getting into.

Which brings me to Line 6….

Line 6

If you’ve been reading my posts from the last year, you might think I love Line 6 more than any other amp maker out there.  I don’t.  It’s just that I never know what style of music I’ll be playing.  Last year I was in a top 40 band that needed straight and distorted tones, wah effects, delay, reverb, and compression.  I even used an octave harmonizer on one song.  Now I’m in a country/country rock/classic rock band.  So the straight tones have gone from a “funk” sound to more twangy.  I’m not using quite as many effects, but I am playing different distortions.

Line 6 is versatile.  I can model a lot of different amps from Fender to Marshall to Mesa Boogie.  Is it perfect? No.  If I decided to specialize – say I was going to go heavy metal, I’d start looking at Eddie Van Halen’s (EVH) brand, maybe Soldano.  Bogner is great but way expensive.

So for versatility – I have the Line 6 50W DT50 head/cabinet, and the Line 6 HD500.  I normally play my Ibanez Prestige.

Line 6 also makes a line of guitars called the Variax.  So now they model guitars like strats, telecasters, les pauls, etc.  That’s nice but it also models acoustic guitars and…..banjo!  As I want banjo for an effect on certain songs and not wanting to be a killer banjo player, this might be worth it.

However, I still wanted 24 frets and a locking vibrato bar.  At the NAMM show this year, line 6 introduced the Variax JTV 89F guitar.  They must have heard my mental messages to them.  24 Frets, Floyd rose, all the models including banjo.  They must have not have heard my mental message about price – they hiked it to $1499.

I will be keeping it in mind as the Turbo Fuegos ramp up our playing and I have a full grip on the material.  The artist side of me wants it now, the business side of me reminds me I haven’t made a dime yet from this band.  If this is going to be an investment, it needs to make sense.

I’ll keep y’all informed 🙂

Spencer

 

 

Sound Advice Pt V (The Initial Gear)

By the beginning of January, I started to wonder if I had all the gear I needed.  My gig was some weeks away, and I was getting concerned that my Line 6 Spider II, even though it was 75 watts, was more of a glorified practice amp than a rugged gigging amp.  There were some practices where it struggled to keep up with volume and it was very directional having only one speaker.

I liked the Line 6 concept – using digital circuitry to mimic it’s analogue counter part – the Tube amp.  I liked the idea that I can get several amp sounds out of a single amp.  It’s a nice solution for someone like me that’s going to play all types of music from Pink to Bon Jovi.

If I was going to do a metal or hard rock band only – then yes, one tube head, one cabinet would be the way to go.  However, I have logistic issues.  I live upstairs so I’d have to trudge whatever I have 19 steps up.  I also drive a sedan – a big one, but it’s still a sedan.  So the combo amp is still the best solution for me.  (Note: combo amps are amps that have the amplifier power and cab in the same box – as opposed to “stacks” where you can buy a 100watt, 200 watt or 400 watt head and mix and match with various 4 speaker cabinets).  Combo amps are almost always mic’d into the PA system.  That’s not always ideal since you have to relinquish control over your volume to someone else and trust me, it doesn’t always turn out well and balanced.  But that’s what I was going to use.

I started googling and checking the forums for who used what, plus I started looking at ebay.

My current rig had only 4 presets on it’s footswitch and offered delay, chorus, phase shifter, and reverb, as well as a wah pedal on the footswitch.  I needed more presets than that so I bought a used FVB Shorboard for $100 that can handle up to 64 presets.  This board doesn’t have any effects on it – it’s just controlling the effects already on the amplifier.  There are about 12 models on this amp – I would be using about 4 of them, but with or without various effects.  I would have about 6 or 7 presets ready for the first gig.

So I had  a board.  Great.  I needed tools, strings, and picks and somewhere to keep them.  Tadaaa! – I went to Walmart and found the Craftsman’s organizer.  With the help of a razor, I modified the compartments to accommodate what I needed to carry.  I have a double locking tremolo system on my Ibanez Presteige – you need a hex wrench to replace strings, as well as a wire cutter to cut the ball bearing off the end of the string.  Batteries, and a flashlight.  This works great.

My search for an amp continued.  I’d heard good things about the Flextone series and the Vetta II series from Line 6 – both these amps are discontinued.  They introduced a new line of amps that seemed to be aimed more at the metal market (Spider Valve with tubes in the preamps), and then the DT series which was well over $1000 that was made to work with their Pod series of effects boards.

Finally, I found a Flextone III amp – 150 watts and 2 12″ speakers.  This had more like 16 amp models and these models were built to emulate existing amps – Fenders, Marshalls, Bogners, etc. It was old – built in 2004 – and the owner, who was local to me in Berkeley – was asking $155.  It would also work with the shortboard I had just bought. I met that bid and waited. No one bid again.  There was no bidding war – time ticked by right up to the deadline and no one swooped in to grab it.  It was mine.  I almost felt bad for the guy. Almost 🙂

I got it home and within the first 30 minutes, I found a problem.  The volume would drop out on me.  The tone would distort when it shouldn’t.  Arg!  Did I just waste $155?  Long story short, I found a great repair shop (and expensive) that would do a complete overhaul on the amp.  The only problem was I would get the amp back on Feb 3rd – the same day as my gig with no time to work with the presets.  Oh well, I was going to use my Spider II for the gig with the new shortboard.  (Although when I did get the amp back, they had cleaned and re-soldered all the connections and knobs and it has been working 100% since.  Only cost me $280, so total money spent was about $435 – still not a bad deal for the power and versatility).

Some stuff I couldn’t get used.  I used a combination of Musiciansfriend.com and Amazon.com. I picked up an amp stand by On Stage – they make pretty good stuff.  When you have a combo amp, it helps to get it off the ground and tilt it up a bit so you can hear yourself better.

And since this band uses music stands, I bought a (again On Stage) sturdy music stand.  And miscellaneous stuff including pick holders, clip on reading light for the music stand, string winders, multi-tooled guitar tools, and a few other things I’ll talk about when I post about my final, complete rig.  This took some time and thought to pull together, plus I will take pictures.  I wasn’t done making purchases by the time I played my first gig, so I’ve got more to say on that, but for that time, I had what I had to get through the night.

On to the show…