2019 Review: Gigging Gear

Rather than do a ‘best of’ style post, every year I’m going to do a rundown of what gear we started with and what gear we ended up with – along with a discussion of why.

What Gear Has Stuck This Year?

We’re an acoustic duo – Tess on vocals, me on guitar – and we play what we call Undercranked Covers as an opening band and at open mic nights. Most of the time, we’re going straight into an amp or PA provided by the venue.

We’re coming up on the end of the first year of our new band. We’ve been out and gigged, and we’ve adapted our live rig on the back of how we felt it stood up to the test.

What Did We Start The Year With?

Although this is the first year we’ve been out gigging, we’ve been talking about doing a band together since 2017. That gave me a couple of years to gradually build up a collection of gear to start us off:

  • Main guitar: Taylor T5z
  • Guitar strings: Ernie Ball Paradigm
  • Main amp: Acus One Forstrings 8
  • Vocal mic: Shure SM58
  • Tuner: Polytune Clip-on

What Did We End The Year With?

In short: quite a different rig. I finally made the move to an actual acoustic guitar, added a backup guitar, and basically upgraded almost everything else either for better tone or because it works better.

  • Main guitar: Auden Artist 45 Bowman
  • Backup guitar: Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster
  • Guitar strings: Optima Bronze
  • Main amp: Acus One Forstrings 8
  • Vocal mic: Sennheiser e945
  • Tuner: Korg Pitchblack Advance

Main Guitar: Auden Artist 45 Bowman Acoustic

I have one of those moments of serendipity to thank for this guitar. It was my wife who was shopping for a new guitar – not me – and this was one of the guitars on her list to try. From the moment we plugged it in, we both knew this was the perfect main guitar for the band.

So what makes it so good?

  • With most acoustic guitars, the magic disappears when you plug them in. Not this guitar. It sounds really good plugged in.
  • It has an unusual 45mm nut width. Normally, steel-string acoustic guitars are a little narrower at 43mm. Once you get used to it, the extra nut width makes it a little easier to play finger-picking style – especially for a hack like me.
  • This guitar has a lot of punch and projection when strummed, and also enough subtlety to suit quieter, finger-picked songs.

In my limited experience, I’d be confident of putting this guitar up against the equivalent Taylors and Martins around the 3,000 GBP range. Yet it cost less than half the price of some of those guitars.

I’ll do a full write-up on it at some point.

The only three negatives are all inconveniences rather than serious issues:

  • The 9v battery is quite inaccessible – so much so that the guitar comes with a tool to help you reach the battery to swap it out. The battery’s only just died on mine, so I’m about to find out just how difficult it is to change.
  • The preamp controls aren’t notched at all. I wish there was a notch at 50%, just to make it easy to reset the controls to a common starting point before making adjustments.
  • You can’t fit strap locks to the guitar, because the rear strap button also doubles as the jack for your guitar lead.

Why the change?

After gigging both the Taylor T5z and Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster, I felt that neither of those guitars worked well live for us. In a small venue, the audience is close enough to hear and feel the projection that a real acoustic guitar. Take that away, and something’s missing.

Backup Guitar: Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster

This guitar’s been on quite the roller coaster this year. It went from being my main gigging guitar to being packed up to be sold, to being in the lineup as my main backup guitar. I’ve had its obituary in draft form for several months, but I’m just not ready to give up on this guitar just yet.

Before all that … having a backup guitar at all is a new thing for 2019. There’s two reasons why:

  • some of our set uses an alternative tuning, and during rehearsals we decided that completely re-tuning the guitar just took too long to do in front of an audience
  • not to mention that, on at least one occasion, I actually snapped a string attempting the re-tuning!

The Acoustasonic makes for a handy backup guitar.

It’s thin and light, so it’ll easily fit in the car along with everything else, and I can sling it onto my back to carry it into a venue, leaving my hands free to carry the Auden and the amp.

And – after having some work done to it! – it sounds alright live. Honestly, it struggles as a solo instrument where there’s nowhere to hide. The problem is that it sounds like a recorded guitar rather than a live one, and the audiences I’ve played in front of didn’t really take to it.

I’m not sure if I’ll still have this come the end of 2020.

Guitar Strings: Optima Bronze

I’ve switched the strings I play in part because I’ve changed guitars this year.

I’ll be honest, the Ernie Ball Paradigms that I was using didn’t do anything for me. About the only thing they’ve got going for them is that they’re supposed to be phenomenally difficult to break when you’re playing or tuning up. That’s a big deal for a gigging guitarist.

But so is the sound – and I found the Paradigms to be too dull for my tastes.

The Optima Bronzes were recommended to me by Tristan over at AStrings.co.uk, and I’m so glad that he did. They add punch and projection to every single guitar I’ve tried them on so far – even the Acoustasonic!

I’m still getting a handle on how long they last, because they do grow dull after a while. They’re not the NYXL of the acoustic string world, alas. I think I get about a couple of months a time out of a set?

Gigging Amp: Acus One Forstrings 8

Let’s not beat about the bush here. This is the best sounding acoustic amp that money can buy. Nothing else – not AER, not Fishman, not Boss, not Fender or Marshall – can hold a candle to one of these.

The Acus One Forstrings 8 is more than big enough to fill any venue we’re likely to need our own amp for, and it makes for a great preamp if I’m playing a larger venue with its own PA.

For most of the year, it was also our main rehearsal amp. We’ve just switched over to not amplifying the guitar in rehearsals, relying instead on the natural acoustic projection of the Auden. That makes it easier for Tess to hear herself during rehearsals. I’m still plugged into the amp, I’m just using it as a preamp to record our rehearsals with.

If this amp died or was stolen, I’d replace it with another one.

The one regret I have with this amp is that I can’t use it for every gig. If you’re turning up to a slot at an open mic night, you plug into their amp / PA. That’s the nature of those opportunities, and you make the best of it.

Vocal Microphone: Sennheiser e945

Tess started the year with her trusty Shure SM58. It’s a good vocal mic, but it’s just not full-range enough be the best choice for an acoustic duo.

The SM58 works best in a full band / rock band situation, where the vocals have to sit into an overall mix. It cuts low-end out to avoid competing with the bass and kick drums, and although the spec sheet shows a lot of top-end high boost, it still somehow ends up sounding dull outside of a full mix.

When we opened for Adriana Spinna, we were really impressed with her vocals, and with her vocal sound. She uses an older, out-of-production Sennheiser, which was replaced by the e945.

I like these mics so much I bought two for the studio, and Tess bought one for her to use live. It has all the clarity and full-spectrum range that we need for accompanying a single acoustic guitar.

Now, we haven’t had the opportunity to use them live yet. I’ll write something up once we have.

Tuner: Korg Pitchblack Advance

I started the year using my Polytune clip-on tuner. I’ve still got it, still use it at home daily, and it always goes with me when I’m off to try a guitar. (What is it with guitar stores expecting everyone to be able to tune a guitar purely by ear? That’s a rare skill!)

In my opinion, it’s not a tool that’s fit to use on stage. (Although I do always pack it as a backup)

When the (metaphorical) clock’s ticking, and your band mate’s doing their best to keep the audience entertained while everyone waits for you to tune up, you don’t want to be waiting for the tuner. And that’s the problem with the clip-on Polytune. It’s quite slow to recognise the string you’ve plucked, and it’s easily confused into showing either no note at all or the wrong note.

By contrast, the Korg Pitchblack Advance is snappy to use, locks onto the string as quickly as I need it to, and seems to be accurate enough for live work. It has a large display that’s easy to see even on a dark stage.

It also lasts forever on a single battery. I can’t stress how important that is for the way we gig.

This year, we’ve played venues where we had no access to a power outlet to plug a pedalboard into. Anything and everything I have on the floor has to run off battery, just in case. Plenty of tuners do that, to be sure. I wonder how many of them will last over six months on a single battery, like the Korg Pitchblack Advance has for me?

Said Goodbye To

Taylor T5z Guitar

I want to take a moment to appreciate the Taylor T5z. Without this guitar, we probably wouldn’t have started the band.

The thinline body is really comfortable on my picking hand’s shoulder. It’s got a Les Paul neck on it, rather than an acoustic profile. And it’s got the same low action I’m used to from my Les Paul.

It was a great bridge guitar for me, helping me make a start on playing in an acoustic style without having to fight the guitar. And we did actually gig it too.

Which is why we made wholesale changes this year. It didn’t work for us as the only instrument on stage.

The sound just didn’t suit us, even using the Acus as a preamp to shape the tone. It’s a bit neck-heavy on a strap, which left me fighting it throughout the performance.

We thought about relegating it to being the backup guitar, but it never stuck in that role. Things came to a head one rehearsal when I snapped a string on the Auden, and the Acoustasonic Telecaster’s battery was too flat to use. Even at that point, I didn’t reach for the T5z.

So, in the end I moved it on.

It was the best-sounding T5z I ever played, and one of the best looking too. I did my best to play every single T5z that came into the UK, and while I can’t claim to have played them all, this was the only one I ever played that I felt wasn’t dead as a musical instrument.

It was too good an instrument to be a case queen, and I hope its new owner is getting a lot of pleasure out of it.

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