So March has been and gone. In the end, February’s absolute deluge of available 2nd hand gear wasn’t repeated this month. But a road trip later in the month brought a chance encounter with something a little bit different …
These are my initial impressions of this month’s new arrivals. I’ll do full articles on each of them when I’ve had some time with them.
Fender American Performer Strat – Maple Board
I have two motives for buying this guitar.
My best-sounding Strat isn’t a Strat at all: it’s my American Deluxe Tele. I had the stock N3 Noiseless pickups (shudder!) replaced with a set of Twisted Tele pickups, and it gets very close to that Strat neck pickup tone. I’d just like to have that from an actual Strat. Preferably one with a maple fretboard.
(I do have an Elite Strat with the stock N4 noiseless pickups. With a little bit of help from the right pedal, they’ll give you a very nice Strat tone in a mix. They can sound a little dull outside a mix, especially if you’ve been playing true single-coil pickups first).
The second motive is all about making memories. I’m currently celebrating 4 years of starting my own business. It hasn’t been easy – and thanks to these historic times it’s about to get much, much harder – but it has definitely been one of the happier periods of my life.
Now, it just so happens that the Performer comes in a shade of blue that’s very similar to the colours I use in my business. A guitar that’ll last for decades and remind me of these moments in years to come? Yes, please.
It took a couple of hours to find a sound for me out of this guitar. I’m not sure why. This is not a deep, booming, Brian Blessed kind of Strat sound. It’s punchy, with a bit of bite, without quite straying into that Tele sharpness.
In the end, I found it by rolling the neck tone down to 7, and backing the neck volume off to around 9. Once I found that sweet spot, I didn’t want to put the guitar down for the rest of the evening.
I tell you what – being able to have both the neck and bridge pickups active at once … Fender should make that a standard wiring setup on all of their Strats. It sounds great on this guitar. I think it sounds even better on the American Performer with a rosewood fretboard.
Fender Vintage Tremolo Springs
My playing style relies on a lot of string bends, and that doesn’t fit so well with the new Strat’s floating trem. I don’t want to block the trem off by putting a piece of wood in the cavity to prevent it moving. There’s another way to tackle it.
This is a tip I got from Texas Blues Alley. I’ve used it before, and it worked well for me.
The basic idea is to replace the three stock tremolo block springs with five Fender Vintage tremolo springs. The Fender Vintage springs are lower tension, and if you use five of them, it’ll deck the tremolo and keep it decked during string bends. You can still do dives using a trem arm if you want.
Sadly, the first place I ordered from – Rich Tone Music in Sheffield – didn’t have any after all (grrr), despite their Amazon marketplace profile claiming that they do hold stock for immediate dispatch. Hopefully the next place I’ve tried will have them.
Yes, they did – and they arrived next day. Yay for retailers – Arcade Music in this case – who are transparent and honest about their stock levels.
Bare Knuckle 63 Veneer Single Coil Bridge Pickup
This is going into the new Strat. I’ve already got the matching neck and middle pickups sitting around. They were meant to go into my beloved Charvel, but I didn’t notice up front that the Charvel’s single coil routing doesn’t take standard Strat-shaped pups.
I actually don’t mind the stock Yosemite pickups. In person, they sound a lot better than I’ve heard them on demos. It’s just that – to my ears – they’re voiced to work really well in a live mix. That’s in keeping with this guitar being a gigging workhorse. They don’t quite have the low-end that I want for when I’m just noodling at home.
Will these pickups from Bare Knuckle give me that? I honestly don’t know. I’m much more experienced and comfortable choosing pickups for Les Pauls. The writeup looks promising, especially with talk of delivering a piano-like ring. That’s a property I personally want from any Strat I keep.
Update: I discovered that the low-end was being spirited away by a (possibly faulty) reverb pedal in my signal chain. The stock Yosemite pickups do have plenty of low-end piano plonk (I can’t think of a better way to describe it). I’m still going ahead with the pickup swap, but only because I’ve already got them.
Mr Black BB-74x Overdrive Pedal
I’ve seen a few of these come up for sale since the New Year, and finally found one at a great price. But what is it?
It aims to create the tones and feel of a “legendary 18W EL-84 combo”. Given the gold and black livery, I am assuming that means the Marshall 1974x 1×12 combo – aka the “mini Bluesbreaker”. It should sit somewhere between the Keeley 1962x Overdrive and the various plexi-type pedals that I have.
This’ll be my very first Mr Black pedal. I’m looking forward to it 🙂
With the new Strat, through the Origin 20H, it was okay but a little on the brittle side. Strap on a Les Paul, and this pedal rips. Of all the Marshall-in-a-Box (MIAB) pedals I’ve tried recently, this one struck me as having the thickest, fattest rhythm tone to date. No idea if it’ll record well, but in the room, it sounded fantastic. I didn’t want to stop playing.
Lovepedal Jubilee Overdrive Pedal
With the release of the new 20W Studio amps, everyone is talking about Marshall right now. And part of that conversation is about the Silver Jubilee – the amp that came after Guns and Roses and the release of Appetite for Destruction. At heart, they’re said to be a two-channel design based on the JCM800. I’ve never played the actual amp myself.
I’ve seen this pedal’s sweet spot described as the crunch channel from the Silver Jubilee amps. I’m hoping for something that sounds like a slightly more mid-forward JCM800, continuing the generational trend of smoothing off the harshness of the highs without becoming dull.
This pedal did not disappoint. Only took a couple of minutes to dial in the sweet spot, and there it is … the sound-in-my-head of 90s rock rhythm. That slightly thinner-than-you-realise, cleaner-than-you-realise rock crunch should sit and breathe so well in an actual mix. And it sounds great in the room through the Origin 20H.
It’s said that the Alexander Silver Jubilee pedal compliments this one very well – that it acts like a compressed Silver Jubilee lead channel. Makes me wish I’d picked one up in January when there were several being offered …
Carl Martin AC Tone Overdrive Pedal
I enjoyed the Carl Martin Plexitone pedal that I picked up in January. When I saw their AC Tone pedal come up at a bargain 2nd hand price, I thought it’d be a good way to dip my toe in the waters.
You can ask the folks over at AStrings, and they’ll happily (and honestly) tell you that I don’t understand the tone of the mighty Vox AC30 amp, and that I haven’t the faintest clue about how to harness it. It’s completely alien to me.
That translates to using this pedal. I thought the Plexitone was bright? Through the Marshall Origin, this thing’ll slice your head off if you’re using a Strat. Dial it back a bit, and the result is one of the most mid-forward tones that I can remember. I can’t think of another way to describe it.
It’s not my thing. And that’s exactly why I need to put some time into exploring this pedal and what it does. How else do we learn and grow?
Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret Mk3 Overdrive Pedal
When it comes to lists of the greatest Marshall-in-a-Box (MIAB) pedals, the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret is normally at or very near the top. After the Tubescreamer, is there a more crowded market than plexi pedals? And how does this compare to some of the great pedals I’ve already been able to try over the years?
My first few minutes with it were filled with the hum of a grounding problem. Was this going to be my first faulty 2nd hand pedal? Thankfully not. Eventually traced the problem to using a TRRS cable from the pedal into the amp. Swapped it out for a normal TRS cable, and the grounding problem was solved. Phew.
It doesn’t have that immediate sweet spot that both the Mr Black BB-74x or Lovepedal Jubilee had. All the controls seem to be highly interactive with big ranges, and the key seems to be finding the right amount of mids first. I was able to dial in a very satisfying crunch rhythm tone from there.
There’s a clarity to it that’s very pleasing, with great string separation. It’s also more compressed than other plexi pedals, and it resisted my initial attempts to boost it with the Echoplex Pre. It’s possible I just need to use a different balance between the ‘preamp’ and ‘master’ controls on the pedal. We’ll see.
Nope. This pedal has very low input headroom. Even medium-output pickups can be too hot to use with it. That’s a big surprise, and for me a very big disappointment. Most rock guitars today don’t have low-output pickups.
MXR il torino Overdrive Pedal
I’ve no idea what this pedal does. No, really. I’ve never heard it in a standalone demo. It’s a pedal that I’ve seen multiple times on professional musicians’ pedal boards, and that’s enough for me to take a punt on a 2nd hand example.
It’s got two modes – a boost, and an overdrive.
The boost mode has plenty of output, and by balancing the gain and master controls on the pedal, it got the Origin 20H cooking nicely. It sounds like it adds a lot of colour to the tone. I’ll need to compare it against some dedicated boost pedals to form an informed opinion.
As a rhythm tone, the overdrive has a nice balance between crunch and smoothness all at the same time. It’s the kind of sound that I believe will sit nicely in the mix. It won’t stand out – and sometimes, that’s exactly what’s required.
Can it take on lead duties? Although it’s a bit compressed, it doesn’t add anything like as much sustain as I expected. When I’ve got time to sit with this pedal for longer, I’ll try slamming it with a dedicated compressor to see if I can get it to sing.
Suhr Riot Distortion Pedal
After getting Suhr’s Shiba Drive recently, I wanted to pick up a Riot pedal too just to complete the set. I like the idea of having the Shiba Drive as a rhythm pedal (doing the Tubescreamer thing of pushing an amp), and using the Riot to kick over into lead tone territory.
I’m expecting both of these pedals to sound really good into the Synergy Plexi module that I also picked up recently 🙂 Alas though, I won’t be able to make it sound anything like as good as Pete Thorn does. I just don’t have his talent.
Running it straight into my Marshall Origin 20H – a clean amp – I liked this pedal a lot more than I was expecting to. I had Joyo’s clone many years ago, and that didn’t do much for me. It’s a nice thick tone that made me think of the MXR il diabolo that I picked up recently.
Red Llama Overdrive Clone
This is another of the many clones from the same hobbyist who made my favourite boost pedals (and those fuzz pedals from last month). I like the quality of his work so much that, whenever I see something from him that I don’t already have, I’m always tempted.
I must admit though that I’d never heard of the Red Llama Overdrive, and had to go and google it. Way Huge are one of those brands that have completely passed me by. Not a brand I’ve tried, and not a brand that people I know ever seem to talk about.
This is the kind of pedal that suits Les Pauls to a T. Roll back your volume to make this pedal growl. Go full blast for a thick, heavily-clipped, violin-like lead tone. It has a very satisfying wide frequency range, with plenty of bass and that 3D-like upper mids and presence.
Gibson Custom Les Paul Special w/ Maple Cap
I’ve been travelling for work, and I found this particular guitar hidden away in a little shop up in Leeds. I was on the hunt for a 2nd Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster to be my backup / alternate-tuning guitar for the upcoming gigs. Certainly wasn’t planning on buying another Gibson this year.
So what convinced me to bring it back with me? Well, it’s a bit unusual, a bit different to the Les Pauls I’ve seen and played before.
This one’s a Custom Shop model made in 2017. It’s got two P90s – I’ve never had a guitar with that combination before. Normally, LP Specials are all-mahogany. This one has a maple cap, although you wouldn’t know it just to look at it. And it’s got the same neck profile as a Les Paul Custom – perhaps my favourite neck profile of all.
I’m hoping to pair it up (for recording purposes) with Ghost – my 2015 Les Paul Custom – and with Morag – my 2018 Ragh Guitars RPJ. I’m a great believer in finding guitars with complementary tones. Fingers crossed that I’ve done exactly that.
Back home and through my rig, and the tone surprised me. With the factory strings, the tone was bright and harsh in the room – not at all the thick mid-rangy monster that Morag is. Changing the strings (I put a set of NXYL 10-46s on it) tamed the harshness nicely. Still a bright – dare I say vintage – tone? Reminds me of how my Les Paul R0 sounds compared to a modern Les Paul Standard.
I’m left with a question for myself: do I keep it stock, or do I swap out the Gibson Custom P90s for a set that’ll sound a bit different? A decision I’m not making this month.