Category Archives: Product Review

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

 

The Ups and Downs of Band Life

Hey all –

Wouldn’t you know it – band drama continues.  In the last four weeks we:

1) Added a rhythm guitarist

2) Added a bassist

3) Rhythm guitarist quit

4) Bassist quit

On the surface you might think something is wrong with the band, or we smell funny.  I don’t think that’s it (I hope).  The rhythm guitarist quit citing personal changes in his life, but didn’t go into any kind of detail.  That’s fine, we wish him well.

The bassist quit citing personal issues as well, which we understood, and wish him well too.

And then there were three…..(again!)…this is where we started, for crying out loud!  Me, a drummer and the singer.

Welcome to band life.  Better take some Dramamine, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Seriously, this happens a lot.  There are several factors, in no particular order:

  • Musical conflicts are high on the list
  • Personal issues (marriage, job, kids – these are a bigger factor when you get older)
  • Substance abuse (also a personal issue)
  • Their level of commitment doesn’t match the rest of the band
  • Their goals (gig a little, gig a lot, do originals, do covers) don’t match the rest of the band
  • Their talent level doesn’t match the rest of the band
  • Personality clashes – too many alpha dogs in the pack can bring on fights and no alphas mean the band can just drift and get nothing done
  • …and probably more…

In my previous band, everybody’s goals were definitely different than mine, plus we didn’t have the right kind of alpha in the band.  Just having an alpha – someone who takes charge either a little or a lot, and starts to pull the band one way or another – doesn’t guarantee success.  Sometimes alphas are wrong.  Sometimes alphas focus too much on one thing (say musical perfection) and not another (promotion).

If all this sounds like herding cats, it sure can be.  Again, in my last band, I would send out a long email on how our band website stacks up against others and what we need to do.  I got zero response.  Not a single “Oh wow, thanks for doing that”.  No dialog, no interest, not even a disagreement.  It’s no wonder that only a few things changed on the website in the year I was with the band.

If you’re guessing I’m an alpha, I’d say so.  Certainly not because I want to control everybody, I just don’t see everything getting done if I don’t pitch in and help.  I also use my MBA background for strategic thinking, marketing, evaluating competition and determining opportunities.  That’s actually fun for me (don’t laugh – it comes in handy).  I want to accomplish something for myself and the band I’m in.  Someone else, who may look at the band as a way to get away from the kids one night a week for practice, could care less how the website looks.

Bands are usually a democracy, or at least they start out that way.  Everybody has a say.  Like a marriage.  And if somebody is really unhappy, something will eventually change.

Luckily the three of us that are left all seem to be like minded in what we want to do.  We state our opinions without getting in each others face about it.  Since I’m more technical than the other two, I’m more than happy to help with the web site, the drop box musical repository, sending reminder emails or confirmation emails about time, place, agenda.  Our singer, on the other hand, is a real people person and is very good working out deals with people.  That’s a skill I’m not very good at.  But I’m glad he is.  It’s a skill someone in the band needs to have or you stay in the garage.

We are recording three songs in May over in Emeryville, and playing a gig May 24th.  I have the gig covered (the bass part anyway) with a long time friend and associate from Guitar Showcase.  I’m glad he was free that night. The auditions have started to try to find someone quick so they can help us with the recording.  We have two auditions lined up so far.

Meanwhile I’m still learning new songs and getting the four sets down.  I got the Tascam GB 10 recently so I’ll be reviewing that in my next blog.

Wish us luck!

Spencer