Disturbing Juxtapositions

Sometimes I wonder if I’m going crazy or if I just see things that aren’t there.

Here’s one example.  I woke up the other day with a song glued into my brain — you know what I mean, right?  Anyway, the song was Pink Floyd at their most wonderfully obscure, i.e.  See Emily Play.

So of course I went onto Ewwwtchoob and watched the thing.  All the way through, though, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the video was reminiscent of another piece of surreal moviemaking — and then I remembered the final scene  from Antonioni’s Blow Up.

The two scenes are in no way alike, cinematically speaking — one is in black & white and is essentially a music video, while the other is deathly silence played in color.  But both are mimes, and wonderfully executed.  Was it the mimes, or the similar locations in a park which triggered the association?

Or maybe it was just Syd Barrett and Michelangelo Antonionini who were crazy.

Afterthought:  I think Blow-Up was created (1965-66) before See Emily Play was filmed (1967).

And just to drive everybody else crazy (why should I be the only one), Blow Up featured the Yardbirds in the famous (and disturbing) night club scene.  Which is why I sometimes associate Jimmy Page with Antonionini.

Test Beds Part IV

Finally, the acoustic guitars.

I’m going to exclude the “classical” / nylon-stringed types, because quite frankly I know nothing about the type, never having played classical guitar nor even been a fan of the genre.  (Yeah, John Williams, Andres Segovia, Julian Bream… I have a few of their albums but mostly for background listening.)

Let’s talk about the others.

I’ve always been a fan of “big box” a.k.a. “dreadnought”-style guitars such as the Martin D45 (D for dreadnought):

…which are the Rolls-Royce, if you will, of box guitars.  The Gibson J200 (J for jumbo, geddit?) is the Bentley of the same:

Myself, I prefer the Gibson Jumbo shape (those curves remind me of a recumbent Sophia Loren hubba hubba).   For those who care not for the shape, Gibson’s squared-off dreadnought style should do, e.g. the Hummingbird:

I should point out that Gibson acoustic guitars are not made in the “regular” Gibson plants in Tennessee etc., but at their custom shop in Wyoming.  As far as price goes, they are only marginally less expensive than Martin.

Changing gears a bit, I have to confess that while the booming sound of the dreadnoughts and jumbos are a personal liking, I also enjoy the compact, compressed sound of the Ovation round-backed acoustics:

As a rule, they’re also a little less fragile than your regular-built acoustics because their back shell is shaped plastic and not flat wood.  Also, they’re a generally lot cheaper than the Gibsons and Martins.

.I’ve never been able to play 12-stringed guitars.  Even when my left-hand fingertips were calloused from 6-night-per-week professional bassplaying, 12-string guitars always beat up my fingers.  I like the sound of a 12-string, though;  and I have to admit, if I played acoustic guitars more often, I could be tempted into an Ovation double-neck:

…even though this particular model is a little too Hank Williams Shirt for my liking.

Next, we come to Taylor, but I must confess I don’t know a great deal about them other than that the ones I’ve heard have sounded wonderful.  (Taylor guitars were a rarity in my South African yoof.)  The ones which did catch my fancy were the Grand Auditorium line, whose sound and resonance blew me away:

Finally, we come to Yamaha LL guitars, and I really like the sound of the 16:

As with all guitars, once you’ve got a baseline sound — the kind of sound that appeals to you — it all comes down to feel:  how the neck feels to your hand and how the box “sits” against your body.

And you don’t have to spend a ton of money on your box guitar, especially if all you’re doing is strumming away on your own, or at most playing it for a family & friends singalong.  Hell, I taught myself to play on a 3/4-scale Hofner nylon-stringed guitar, and it served me well in the above functions for over a decade.  And even when I “graduated” to the big time and played little solo gigs in bars and such, an Ibanez Artwood model worked just fine:

Nowadays, they run about $300, and they still sound fantastic.  (The “ordinary” Ibanez acoustics are about half that price.)

One last thing:  I preferred a “dark” sound on my box guitars, so I played using really heavy strings (D’Addario Medium Baritone 0.16), which also didn’t lose their tuning as quickly as the lighter ones.  If you are of the same mind, make sure to get a guitar with a well-constructed neck, or else you’re just going to bow or warp the thing.  Don’t ask me how I know this.

That’s the end of the Test Bed series.  Sadly, I can’t do keyboards or drums, because technology has improved so much in recent years that I’m now hopelessly out of touch.

Story of my life…

Test Beds Part III

Let me kick off this piece about guitars by talking for a moment about pianos.

I know that classical concert pianists, for example, will only use certain pianos:  Valentina Lisitsa her “Bosie” (Bosendorfer), Glenn Gould his ancient Steinway, Claude Debussy his Bechstein and Maurizio Pollini his Fazioli — and not more than a few hundred people in the world would be able to tell the difference in sound between any of these instruments unless they heard them side by side, being played by the same pianist playing the same piece of music.  (a.k.a. “testing”).  (I can tell the difference between a Fazioli and a Steinway, but only if I’m told before the music starts that the pianos are a Fazioli and a Steinway.  If you were to cheat and slip in a Bechstein instead of the Steinway, I’d say it was a Steinway.)

Guitarists are far more finicky than pianists.

I have to say up front that I can’t play guitar — the six-string kind — worth a damn.  However, I know quite a bit about how they function, and more importantly, how they sound.  For a long time, I worked in a music store in Johannesburg which catered to the professional musician crowd, and just by listening to the guys talking, and demonstrating what they were talking about, I gradually learned all about the topic.  And of course, playing in a rock band for a decade didn’t hurt, either.

Guitarists are impossibly self-critical when it comes to both their ability and the way their instruments sound, so I generally view their preference for humbucker- over single-coil pickups (pickup info here), Ernie Ball strings over D’Addario strings and ’64 Strats over ’59 Les Paul guitars, all with amused indulgence.

It’s all about personal choice and taste, in other words.  And when it comes to the quality of instruments, I’m pretty sure that you could give Eric Clapton the cheapest Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster, and he’ll still make it sound better than you will your ’63 pre-CBS-sellout Precioussss.  (For those non-musicians bemused by all the above terms, don’t worry:  none of this means that much except to anal-retentive musicians.)

All that said, I have some very strong preferences when it comes to off-the-rack lead guitars (once the guitarists starts tinkering with the thing, swapping out pickups, changing tone controls and so on, it’s all over).  Even so, I know that many Mexican-made Fender Stratocasters, for example, are not horrible, just as Squier “entry-level” Stratocaster knockoffs are not the worst way to get into music at all.  I used to own one of the latter, as it happens, and once I’d put decent strings on it and acquired a couple of effects pedals, nobody could tell the sonic difference between it and a Strat.  What works for you, the guitarist, is what’s most important, but I have to tell you, there are certain guitars which no guitarist is going to sneer at, or turn his nose up at when you open your case and plug it in.  Here they are, in no specific order.

Fender Stratocaster.  Clapton, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Trevor Rabin… the list goes on and on.  I love Strats.

(Here’s its Squier counterpart:)

Cost of the Fender:  anywhere up to $2,000 for the “Ultra” line;  the Squier:  $400.

Gibson Les Paul Standard.  Gibson has a dizzying variety of Les Paul variants (more than I care to list or even look up), but nobody ever went wrong with a Standard, including Les Paul himself.  This one is a maple-top cherry sunburst, none of which makes any difference to the sound except to people who play them:

If you want to hear how the Les Paul sounds, then listen also to Billy Gibbons and Joe Walsh.  Now let Joe explain how he sets up his Les Paul, for a lesson in Extreme Guitar Dorkery.

Gibson also has a “budget” line (because Gibson-brand guitars are quite spendy) called Epiphone, and a constant buzz resonates among the YouChoob “testers” as to the difference in sound between the two,  Here’s the Epi Les Paul:

Cost of the Gibson:  $2,700;  the Epiphone:  $450.

  • Now before I go any further, allow me to state that in this matter, as in all others, such a difference in price has to be paid for by a reduction in quality — in the case of guitars, of the components.  (My own Epiphone SG bass guitar is a case in point;  it played perfectly well for about a month, whereupon the pickup selector switch suffered a catastrophic failure and the guitar fell silent.)  The issue is not how the guitars function brand new, it’s how they’ll play in five years’ time — which is when the neck will warp because of cheap green wood used in its manufacture, the tuning heads made of tin will be rusted into immobility, etc. etc.  TANSTAAFL.

All that said, I can say without fear of contradiction that if your band’s guitarist (or guitarists) can have only those two guitars (a Strat and a Les Paul), all will be well and your band will sound as good as any of the pros, subject of course to talent and decent amplification.  I can say this with absolute certainty because in my old band, those are the two guitars we used for over a decade, and we sounded just fine.

Certainly, nobody is going to curl a lip when you take either of the two out of the case, and your sound will be as consistent as is possible to achieve;  so when trying out a new amp, for instance, you could tell almost immediately whether your sound has improved because the if the guitar now doesn’t sound great, it’s the fault of the amp.

Now I’m going to wander off into the Guitar Dork Forest and mention a couple more of my favorites.

As far as rock music is concerned, I also like the venerable Fender Telecaster (Keith Richards, Samantha Fish, etc.) because it is a stripped-down, honest guitar that if not set on fire, will outlive Keith Richards because of its supreme simplicity:

Likewise, Gibson’s SG (in this configuration, as played by AC/DC’s Angus Young, for instance):

If the Les Paul and Strat are your first-choice, then the Tele and SG could be your #1a, and I will venture to suggest that your band will still sound incredible.

My choice #2 would be the Rickenbacker 300 series (305/325/360) as played by John Lennon/George Harrison, and David Crosby:

No other guitar sounds quite like the Rickenbacker, with its jangly, bright tone (the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man, the Beatles’  Words Of Love), and if I were a competent guitarist with any band pretensions, I’d give the 300 series a long, hard look.  As would I do for the next one, the Guild Stratford:

…but to be honest, this guitar (the hollow-body type, as compared to the above which all have solid bodies) is best used to play traditional jazz — and when in comes to this kind of music, nothing but nothing compares to the wonderful Gibson guitars, either the Model 175 (Steve Howe of Yes)

…or the Gibson (semi-hollow body) 335 (B.B. King):

To be honest, if someone were to tell me I’d only be able to play a 335 for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy man (and Rhett Shull agrees).

As long as I could play the 335 like this guy can.

And then, of course, you get Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars… and Carlos Santana.

If you’ve gotta ask how much they cost… get a Les Paul.

There are literally thousands of electric guitars out there (basically proving what a fussy bunch guitarists are), and if I’ve left out your own guitar, or favorite guitar, well… sorry.  But the above are my favorites, for all sorts of different reasons. And in case you’re still interested after all this, here’s Watchmojo’s top ten guitars.  (Most of their lists are total shit, but this one isn’t too bad.)

All the great guitarists of modern times have played, or still play, a version of these guitars, and not one could ever argue with your choice if you stuck with only one.  And all the top guitarists have played just about every guitar ever produced, because that’s what they do.  Then you have guys like this one

But you never will.  And it all depends what kind of musical genre you want to play — and even then, the guitar doesn’t really matter that much, as this guy demonstrates.

Now, about acoustic guitars… till next time.

Style Points

I have written before about my old band Atlantic, and with great affection of our late lead guitarist, Kevin.  While I tried to describe his guitar playing, I feel I didn’t do it justice.  But now I can.

As I was stumbling and bumbling around the Internets last night, I happened upon this oldie, and if you want to see exactly how Kevin played, note the virtuosity of Focus’s Jan Akkerman — and it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that in playing this song (as Kevin used to do, just for practice), his and Akkerman’s style, down to the way they held their guitars, are identical.  (Nobody in our band, and quite possibly nobody in the whole world could ever sing like Thijs van Leer.)

Kevin had better hair, though.


Test Beds Part II

Yesterday I talked about amplifiers that I’d use for testing and gigging.  Today, it’s the turn of the bass guitars.

First off:  I don’t think any electric guitar (lead or bass) should contain a battery — the so-called “active” mode — because a.) batteries go flat — usually at the worst possible time — and b.) battery performance degrades the longer you use one.  If you want to juice up your guitar, use a booster or graphic equalizer pedal, or have an amp which includes those functions.

Of course, because I am an Olde Phartte who thinks that very little has happened since about 1990 which has actually improved the human condition, the above will come as no surprise.

Anyway, I’m going to list my favorite guitars according to two criteria:  “everyday” (ones that could do 90% of anything I’d want them to do, and “specialist”, for a sound or purpose which the everyday ones physically could not do.

In this post I’m going to deal with bass guitars, because that’s the easiest and because I know more about them than should be allowed in decent society.  Bear in mind, I want a clean, full sound out of my bass so that it will round out the sound of the band and give it a solid, earthy foundation, so the bass guitars I pick will perform that function, in spades.

Aside:  any bass I play will have only four strings because it’s a bass guitar, not a lead guitar.  Adding extra strings to a bass leads one into temptation to play the bass like a lead guitar (which is totally wrong), and of necessity, 5- and 6-stringed basses end up with thinner strings (so as to fit them all onto the neck), and thinner strings play with a more treble sound.  My own strings of choice (Ernie Ball “Beefy”) were much thicker than a standard-gauge set, and when played with augmented bass through the graphic equalizer, I could move chairs across the dance floor.

Anyway, on to the guitars.

No surprises with my first choice:  the one I played professionally for ten years, the Rickenbacker 4001S (now known as the 4003S):

No other bass sounds like the Rick, and no other bass plays like it, either.  Also, although it’s not important, some of my favorite bassists played Rickenbacker:  Chris Squire of Yes (who first turned me onto its sound), Paul McCartney and Roger Glover of Deep Purple.  There are others, many others, but none of that matters.  And the Rick has a stereo output option, which gives it more flexibility when it comes to amplification.  (I sometimes used to run the bridge pickup through an effects pedal like a chorus or flanger, and the neck pickup clean, straight through a graphic equalizer, which kept the bass foundation steady whether I was using the other pedals or not.)

Anyway, if I were called on to test a new bass amp, I’d use the Rick and the Roland as the standard, then plug the bass into the new amp without touching any of the guitar’s controls (not that I ever did, anyway;  only occasionally would I even use the pickup selector, and then only to mute the bridge pickup to get the right tone for dinner-dance music).

Recording engineers apparently hate the Rick because driven at full volume on the guitar (as I always did), its signal causes problems at the board — but that’s their problem.  They do like my #2 choice (which is waaaaay below my #1), the Fender Precision, or P-bass, as it’s lazily termed.

The Precision is the Everyman of guitars:  predictable, reliable and probably the foundation for more music since 1950 than any other bass guitar, especially as recording engineers love them.  I prefer its neck to that of the Jazz bass, but to me its sound is kinda vanilla (with one exception that I’ll talk about in a moment).

For another exceptional-sounding bass, we go to my #3 choice, the Gibson Thunderbird:

As with the Rickenbacker, no other guitar sounds like the Thunderbird:  it simply growls like a big angry dog, and I can pick out its sound immediately in any recording.  Just listen to Martin Turner of Wishbone Ash in The King Will Come, and you’ll see why I love it.  (The bass actually roars in at 1:15, if that matters to you.)

There are lots of other bass guitars out there, but those three will handle almost everything needed to produce a decent bass foundation — and most importantly, their sound is always absolutely consistent, which makes them perfect instruments to test amplifiers.  I cannot tell you how many times I’d plug my Rick into a different amp, play maybe half a song or only a few blues or rock ‘n roll riffs, and know immediately whether that amp was worth a damn.

Aside:  I once stepped into an established band to fill in for their regular bassist for a month — his work permit had expired and had to be reinstated — and while of course I played my own bass (the Rick), I had no problem using his 200w Orange amp and reflex cabinet rig, because it sounded, in a word, fantastic:  halfway through the very first song, I knew the amp was top-class because my Rick sounded wonderful.  I even made him an offer for the rig when he came back.  He told me to piss off, quite rightly, because he knew what he had;  and I’ve loved the clean sound and simplicity of Orange amps ever since.

But back to guitars…

Finally, we come to the “specialist” bass guitars, and that’s an easy one, because I’m talking about the fretless type, with which one can create a double bass sound even if, like me, you can’t play an upright double bass.  This would be the fretless version of the Precision bass:

Fitted with smoothwound strings (instead of the typical roundwound) to eliminate the squeaks of the fingers changing position on the strings, and you have a smoooooth sound that works with jazz, rock and even classical.  Then there’s Tony Levin

When I grow up, I wanna play bass like he does.

And here’s Cathy Popper, who plays a Fender Precision bass:

and the double bass:

Next week in Part III we’ll do the guitars.

Test Beds Part I

This is going to be a somewhat esoteric series of posts — i.e. of limited interest to most people — but hey, variety is the spice of whatever, right?

As with all things, your opinions may differ from mine — in this series, it’s about “sound” and “feel”, and no more divergent criteria exist — but there ya go.

Today we are talking  about amps for electric guitars and bass guitars, because I’m sick of seeing clickbait links to some guy talking about the “best” or “best ten”, and finding myself in complete disagreement not necessarily because of his choices, but of his test equipment and criteria.  I have a few prejudices on the topic (based on years of playing in a rock band), but I want to set the ground rules — testing standards, really — right up front so we can all see the “truth”, so to speak.

Typically, we see the tester (almost always a guy) holding a guitar and extolling its virtues, maybe riffing a little to make his point, and so on.  Then we see that what’s really happening is that he’s playing said instrument through a whole bunch of pedals which enhance or otherwise improve the sound.  And who can make a judgment based on that?  Even worse is when these guys then try another instrument, but through a whole different bunch of pedals and another type of amplifier.

In the testing business, that’s called “bullshit” (I know, a very technical term), because the essence of testing is that it has to take place in a common universe or using identical testing procedures / equipment, or else it’s just nonsense and we end up with that tiresome (but accurate) cliche of “apples to oranges” and such.

When testing a guitar, lead or bass, find ONE amp and use it for all your testing.  The guys at Sweetwater generally do it right in their demonstration videos, usually using a Fender Twin Reverb 85w amp in some shape or form.  I happen to think that the venerable Twin Reverb is the greatest guitar amp ever made, and all others differ simply in terms of their sound, whether the Vox AC-30, the Marshall 1959 or the Mesa/Boogie Mark Five.  (All would be excellent choices as a test amp, by the way, but the Twin Reverb has the cleanest sound and therefore makes it a first among equals.)  Generally speaking the simpler the amp, the better (for testing purposes), which means that all the “modeling” amps (which use electronic trickery to mimic sounds of other amps) are a waste of time, unless you use the same amp voice consistently.  But few do.  As a test bed, simpler is better, and the Twin Reverb is an outstanding choice.

If I were a lead guitarist in a gig band, my top 3 choices for an amp would be:  1.) Fender ’89 Custom Twin Reverb, 2.)  Fender ’65 Twin Reverb and 3.) Marshall JVM210C 100w.  (If you want to see how they sound, go to their respective links and scroll down till you get to the demo videos.) Note that whatever amp I chose, the type would be a combo (amp and speakers in the same cabinet), because when you gig, it’s easier to carry an amp in one hand and a guitar in the other, and combo amps pack more easily in the van.

On another note, I prefer the sound of valve guitar amps, but valves do degrade over time — I know, like batteries in a guitar — but the downside of a solid state amp is if a transistor goes (it does happen, it’s happened to me), you’re left with silence;  if a valve goes, the others will keep on going until you get to put in a new one.  But nothing beats the velvety sound and smooth distortion of a valve amp, which is why 90% of the world’s guitarists use them.

When it comes to bass amps, I’m (surprisingly) in favor of solid state amps.  I’ve used both (Fender Bassman and Orange for valves, and Roland for solid state), but the reason I prefer transistor-driven bass amps is that I like a simple, clean bass tone (it’s a rhythm instrument and not a lead one, although people like Mark King and Billy Sheehan have blurred the lines somewhat).  And speaking of the aforementioned virtuosos, while I envy greatly their skill, I happen to hate the sound that each uses:  King’s is very thin to my ears, and Sheehan’s is dirty — the very antithesis of what I like to produce.  For those interested, here’s a list of some other bassists;  the rankings are unimportant, because any one of them could have been in the top 20, interchangeably.

Once again, if I were going to go out and gig today, I’d probably use a Roland Cube 120XL (because they don’t make my old rig, the RB-120 anymore, the fools):

I know, it’s got a modeling feature (COSM), but I’d only ever use one — the “Session”, which is essentially their old “Studio” bass amp circuitry, and one of the best-sounding amps ever made.  They stopped making that amp too, the idiots x2. (I have a Cube XL-30 right now, as it happens, and I love it.)  The Cube series of bass amps are also wonderfully light, which is no small thing for gigging.

Side issue:  Roland does this all the time — introduce a brilliant amp, then discontinue it after a few years — and it irritates the shit out of me.  Their GA-212 guitar amp was the coolest one ever, and it lasted about five years before they ditched it.  The only one they’ve never had the nerve to kill is the peerless Jazz Chorus, and which would be one of my solid state amps of choice for a gig.

Simple is best, for me.  All there needs to be is gain, volume, treble, mids and bass controls, and Kim’s a happy camper.  Something like this:

So if I couldn’t find a Cube 120-XL and needed a simple (and available) solid state combo bass amp, then I’d probably go with a Hartke KB15 (1×15″ speaker, 500w):

“Why a 500w amp, and why a 15″ speaker, Kim?”

I need the power because I keep the gain (pre-amp drive) low to prevent distortion, ergo  I need more power at the power amp stage.  And as for the speaker:  bass is all about moving air, and a 15″ speaker moves air better than a 10″ or even a 12″ — and it handles bass frequencies better, in my experience.  I’ve played the Kickback before, not at a gig, and I was astounded at the clarity of its sound.  (Also, bass virtuoso Victor Wooten loves the Kickback, so who am I to argue?)

Okay, so we’ve established the amps I’d use, whether testing or for a gig:  the Fender Twin Reverb for guitars, and the Hartke Kickback for bass.  Tomorrow, I’ll rank my favorite guitars of each type.