New Arrivals For September 2019

August was another really slow month on the second hand market, and things didn’t pick up for September. Instead, I’ve ended up concentrating on the first guitar of my #PlayAlternative series.

Vintage V100 Lemon Drop Guitar

Vintage are a UK brand, who specialise in making their take on big-brand guitars for the budget end of the market. The V100 Lemon Drop is based on Peter Green and Gary Moore’s famous 59 Les Paul – the one that Kirk Hammett owns and gigs atm.

It’s the exact guitar Adam played in this video:

It’s the first guitar I’ve bought for my #PlayAlternative challenge, and fingers crossed it will become the benchmark to measure all the other alternatives against.

Boss GE-7 Graphic Equaliser Pedal

In person, through my rig, the Vintage Lemon Drop doesn’t quite sound like a Les Paul. It has a bit more of a modern, mid-scooped tone, with deeper lows and brighter highs. Through modern-voiced amps, it’s probably a good voicing for its target audience.

I was curious. How can I make it sound close enough to a Les Paul that no-one will know or care? A pickup swap is the obvious thing to try (see below), but that’s expensive, and possibly beyond the budget of someone who would be looking at the Vintage Lemon Drop in the first place.

But a Boss pedal would be firmly in-budget. Can the venerable GE-7 alter the tone enough? I decided to buy one to find out 🙂

Sigil Pickups Bluesman Snakebite PAF Humbuckers

Once I decided that the Vintage Lemon Drop was a keeper, I really wanted to hear how it would sound with a great set of PAF-like pickups. What happens if you take a set of pickups intended to be an upgrade over Gibson’s Custom Shop pickups, and drop them into (possibly) the most shafordable Les Paul knock-off available in retail stores?

There’s plenty of great UK-based pickup makers out there, including Monty’s Guitars and OX4 Pickups to name two I’ve been delighted with in the past. If I was playing regular gigs with Les Pauls, they’d all have OX4 pickups in them.

For this project, I wanted to go back to Canada’s Sigil Pickups.

David made the Bluesman 57 Ltds that went into Ghost (my 2015 Gibson Les Paul Custom). He was a delight to deal with, and the pickups were simply fantastic. They completely transformed that guitar. I always told him that I’d buy the pickups for my next Les Paul from him … and haven’t bought a humbucker Les Paul since.

He’s greatly expanded the range since 2015, and these Snakebite pickups caught my eye. If you haven’t come across it before, Snakebite is Joe Bonamassa’s #1 vintage Les Paul. It’s a phenomenal-sounding instrument, even amongst original Bursts. A set of pickups that can chase that tone should be perfect for this project.

More details – and actual sound clips of these! – will follow. For now, all I’ll say is that these pickups sound so good, the guy who installed them for me kept the Sigil Pickups business card, because he wants a set for himself.

#CoffeeAndKlon 15: First Impressions Can Be Wrong

This conversation was originally posted to my Twitter feed.

Good morning! I hope you’re having a great weekend so far. What’s on my mind for this week’s #CoffeeAndKlon? I want to talk about how a first impression doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny.

Today’s Coffee

I’m already most of the way through my coffee. It’s the last of the Jamaican Blue Mountain. If you normally drink darker roasts, esp ones with that delicious burnt after taste, give Blue Mountain a go. It’s a complete contrast, in a good way IMHO.

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We’ve been shopping for coffee during the week. Found a couple of roasts we haven’t tried before. And then, when we were putting the coffee away in the cupboard, we found a bag of beans hidden away at the back that we’d forgotten about 🙂

On The Board Atm

Here’s my practice / test board atm. I’m still using the Tweed 57 and Black 65 as tone shapers. One or the other has been on the board ever since they arrived in August. I’m currently trying them with other drive pedals, and I’m still loving the results.

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It’s not pedals that I want to talk about this week though. There’s a story behind my decision to buy a Vintage guitar, and I think it’s worth sharing.

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Then I’ll Begin …

Yesterday, I bought a new guitar for my #PlayAlternative challenge: a Vintage Lemon Drop. It’s a (very) budget / shafordable Les Paul knock-off. Over here, it’s probably the cheapest singlecut guitar you’ll find in the stores.

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I first played a selection of these guitars what – about two months ago? – when they first came into stock. I really didn’t like them.

Then, just over a week ago, we were listening to the @astringsuk podcast in the car. They did a blind tone challenge, between Adam’s Blues Master Les Paul and one of these Vintage guitars.

And I got it wrong.

In a blind tone comparison, I couldn’t identify the (lush!) Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul from the shafordable Vintage Lemon Drop. That convinced me that my first impression of these guitars was wrong, plain and simple.

It also reminded me of a piece of advice that Brian Wampler had shared up on his YouTube channel.

Brian Wampler put out a video recently where he tried to make a great point: get the gear in your own hands and find out for yourself. Because recordings aren’t the same as your guitar through your rig, played by you.

The interesting thing here is that it was the recording that convinced me to get this guitar – NOT trying one in person.

Isn’t that the exact opposite of what Brian said?

I don’t think Brian’s advice is wrong. It’s just that sometimes there’s a gap between what you can get out of a piece of gear in a shop, and what that gear can actually do. Sometimes, you need a recorded demo to show you the potential.

So that’s the backstory to how I came to buy a Vintage Lemon Drop for my #PlayAlternative challenge. And why it’s going to be a few months before I talk about how I’m getting on with it.

I hope you enjoyed it.

#PlayAlternative: The Search Begins

#PlayAuthentic … Or Else!

By now, you’ve probably heard of Gibson’s notorious #PlayAuthentic PR and legal stunt.

If you haven’t … basically, Gibson published (and then pulled) an official video saying that the only authentic Les Paul is one made by Gibson, and that they were coming after other people who make similar guitars. Very shortly afterwards, there was a lot of publicity about them suing the owners of Dean Guitars, and then their failure to trademark aspects of the flying V body shape in Europe.

It was the beginning of a PR nightmare that’s still continuing to this day, as the new Gibson management continue to lurch from one PR misstep to another.

There’s been some backlash, especially in the form of ridicule. As always, there’s been some folks loudly declaring that they’ll never buy another Gibson, but mostly it’s served to knock the shine off the mid-2019 relaunch of the Les Paul.

Is Only A Gibson Good Enough?

In the midst of all this, Gibson’s been using another PR slogan: “Only A Gibson Is Good Enough”. It started under Henry J, and is still in use today by the new management team. You’ll often see it on their Instagram photos.

When the #PlayAuthentic thing blew up, it got me thinking about this slogan. Do Gibson really make the best Les Paul-type guitars? Or are there perfectly good alternatives out there if (for whatever reason) you don’t want a Gibson. Are there better Les Paul-type guitars out there?

I know the answer is yes because I own a couple of them. But are there more?

Self-Confessed Les Paul Fan

Let’s not pretend otherwise: I absolutely love my Gibson Les Pauls. They’re not my desert island guitar, but I’m more likely to be playing a Les Paul of some kind than anything else on most days.

I’ve never agreed with all the Internet claims that Gibson has only (or mostly) been making poor quality guitars for years now. There have been increasing design mis-steps since 2015, coupled with pricing themselves out of the market and the self-destruction of their dealer pool … but that’s different to saying that they have been doing a bad job of constructing and finishing guitars.

I’ve lost count of the number of Les Pauls I’ve played since 2012. Many of them haven’t been for me, but every single one of them was well made and perfectly usable as an instrument.

And whenever I’m in a guitar shop that stocks Les Pauls, I’m always trying what’s hanging on their wall, to see if they’ve got anything I want to add to my collection.

So why am I publicly looking for alternatives?

So Why Look At Alternatives?

For now, Gibson seems to have wound its neck in a bit, and calmed down on the whole #PlayAuthentic front. If that changes, and they become lawsuit-happy, I’ll want to vote with my wallet and take my money elsewhere.

But even if things stay as they are now, there’s another good reason to start looking into what else is out there …

I love trying out gear that’s new to me. It’s my way of learning more about what’s possible … and more about the gear that I’ve already got and already love.

But today, if you asked me what I would recommend instead of Gibson Les Paul, I wouldn’t be confident enough to recommend anything right now.

So here’s what I’m going to do.

The #PlayAlternative Plan

When I’m out at guitar shops, I’m going to start looking at what Gibson / Epiphone alternatives are out there. If I find something that I think will be a good choice, I’m going to buy it so that I can spend enough time with it alongside my Les Pauls to form a solid opinion.

That way, I can put these guitars through the rig I know best, and really get to know them.

I’ll write blog posts on them as I go – just like I do with all the pedals I buy – looking at why I bought them, how I get on with them with various rigs, and ultimately if I feel they’re worth an entry on the #PlayAlternative list.

There’s going to be alternatives out there that I personally wouldn’t buy – just like I’ve passed on the vast majority of Les Pauls I’ve tried over the years. That’s down to personal preference. You can go to other blogs – and almost any forum – if you want to read trash-talk about brands or guitars. I’m going to try and find a way to discuss these guitars that’s also fair to the people making them, and to the people selling them.

And there’s going to be plenty of guitars out there that I wouldn’t buy because I don’t think they’re close enough to be considered a viable Les Paul alternative. I might maintain a list of these (if I’ve tried them in person), just for reference, mostly noting what they’re missing compared to a Gibson Les Paul.

What Makes A Les Paul, Other Than The Name?

So what am I looking for? What are the features on a Les Paul that make it a Les Paul?

Vintage-voiced dual humbucker or equivalent: A Les Paul typically has two humbuckers, two P90s, or a single P90 in the bridge. Gibson has used a range of humbucker flavours over the years, but the quintessential humbucker for a Les Paul is one that’s attempting to recreate the magic of the old PAF pickups.

Independent volume and tone controls: on a Les Paul, each pickup normally has its own volume control and tone control. This control layout is an essential part of the Les Paul experience. Most of the great Les Paul tones come from working these controls in tandem with the 3-way pickup selector.

24.75 Inch scale length: an important part of playing a Les Paul is the feel, and that comes (in part) from using a shorter scale length than Fender does on Strats and Teles. It doesn’t have to be exactly 24.75 inches, but it does need to be in the ball-park.

Tune-o-matic bridge: the shorter scale length moves the bridge closer to the centre of your body, making it easier to play closer to the bridge, and to use your right hand at the bridge to control string noise and string muting. The Tune-o-matic style bridge is a big part of making that easy and comfortable to do.

Low action: Les Pauls feel great to play because they come with a much lower action than your average Fender does. Combined with the shorter scale length, they just feel like they take less effort to play.

What Isn’t Quite As Important?

What about the other things that make up a Gibson Les Paul? Are any of those must-haves for my #PlayAlternative recommendations?

Tone woods: a Les Paul Standard is a mahogany neck, mahogany body, maple cap, and rosewood fingerboard. Are these all essential? After all, it’s a formula that Gibson itself keeps deviating from. Two of the best Les Pauls I’ve ever owned used different woods, as does my Desert Island guitar.

Nitro finish: most manufacturers today use a poly finish of some kind, rather than the nitro finish that Gibson Les Pauls are famous for. Is it an essential part of the Les Paul tone? After all, PRS don’t use nitro finishes, and they make some of the greatest tone machines around today.

What matters, at the end of the day, is the quality of the tone we can get out of any alternative to a Les Paul. Does it sound like a Les Paul when we play it?

Flame maple cap: playing a Les Paul isn’t just about the tone; it’s also about the iconic look. I’m guilty of that: I went out hunting for a Les Paul specifically on looks. For many people, the pretty maple tops are a big part of that look. But, while I’m an absolute sucker for great looking wood, I’m very happy playing Les Pauls that don’t have a very flamey maple cap.

The single-cut body shape: a second part of the iconic look is the body shape. It’s synonymous with rock-n-roll like no other. Many people are going to feel that a guitar isn’t a Les Paul alternative if it isn’t a single-cut shape. I get that.

The headstock: there’s something about the shape of the Les Paul headstock that completes the iconic look of a Les Paul. Many people won’t buy an Epiphone because Gibson won’t let them use the same headstock shape.

But that’s the thing: the only way to get a 100% Les Paul look is to buy a Gibson Les Paul. Any other guitar is going to look different in some way or another.

Made in America: one of the big appeals of a Gibson Les Paul is that it’s made in the USA. America doesn’t have a monopoly on making great instruments, and it’s unlikely we’ll find many viable alternatives that are American-made. If you want to #PlayAlternative, you have to be open to playing something made somewhere else.

My Final Criteria

Away from the guitar itself, what other criteria am I going to use to help me in my search for a #PlayAlternative list of guitars?

Try-before-you-buy: I wouldn’t buy a Gibson Les Paul without trying it first. For me, the magic of a Les Paul is about finding the ones with their own distinct voice. Practically, that means that any Les Paul alternative has got to be hanging on the wall in a music shop that’s within travelling distance for me … which is basically any music shop here in the UK.

That does rule out Thomann’s in-house brand Harley Benton, along with several other brands that are only available through Thomann. If you’re comfortable buying a guitar without hearing it first, there’s plenty of YouTube videos from Thomann themselves, the Guitar Geek and Henning Pauly on the alternatives you can get from Thomann.

If we manage to stop Brexit, maybe I should celebrate by going shopping at Thomann’s store? 🙂

Current production model: I’m not comfortable recommending a guitar if you can’t get it yourself. I think it’s easier to satisfy that if I only look at guitars that are brand new and still being made.

Does that disqualify boutique guitars, which are typically one-off instruments or made in small batches? I’m going to say ‘no’, because boutique guitar makers are often at the forefront of making the very best tone monsters today.

It does disqualify second hand instruments. As a general rule, a recent factory-made guitar is normally better made than one from (say) five years ago, especially if the factory is in Asia. Year on year, they’re getting more experienced in how to build instruments, and getting better at how to consistently build them.

By all means, if you like something I recommend but want it cheaper, do look at second hand examples.

Price points: this is an area where we can try and improve on Gibson’s current range. One of the things I love about Fender is how they make perfectly fine instruments at a range of prices – especially more affordable prices.

So let’s see if I can find anything to recommend at similar prices to Fender’s main lines here in mid-2019:

  • Fender Player – around £550
  • Fender american-made – starts at £1000-£1200
  • Top-of-the-line factory made, non-limited edition – between £1800-£2000
  • Custom-shop money: £3000+

That last one is there to basically cover anything that’s boutique or PRS 😉

Especially at the budget end, I’m expecting to have to mod the guitars (pickup changes, for example). These price targets have to cover all the costs of any mods too – parts and labour.

What’s On Your #PlayAlternative List?

I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to build up my list. It’s definitely going to be a work-in-progress kind of thing.

To help me get started, what do you think should be on the list of guitars for me to go and look at? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

New Arrivals For July 2019

This month has been a month of two very different stories: guitars and pedals.

On the guitar front, I’ve been very fortunate to find a couple of guitars that blew my socks right off. Proper love-at-the-first-note through an amp fairytale stuff. Fairytales don’t always have a happy ending, mind, so do check back in the months ahead to learn whether these do (or don’t)!

Pedals have been much more of a mixed bag. Good deals have been hard to come by this month, with a lot of people chasing a smaller pool of 2nd hand gear. Maybe it’s the summer months, or maybe it’s the renewed uncertainty here in Britain atm? Either way, I hope things pick up.

I’m doing something a bit different this month. Rather than try and squeeze my first impressions into 3 or 4 paragraphs (to keep these ‘New Arrivals’ posts short), I’ve started breaking them out into separate posts that I’m linking to from here. It gives me a bit more space to talk about each piece of gear. Do you like it? Or do you prefer the ‘all-in-one’ format I’ve been using up to now? Let me know in the comments below.

Auden Artist Bowman 45 OM Acoustic Guitar

We did another small gig at the end of May – a 20 minute slot at a new open-mic night up in Malvern. I took the Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster, and ran it straight into the PA. I did not enjoy the sound at all, and on the drive home I made up my mind to see if I’d be happier with a traditional acoustic guitar.

To be honest, I’d already started looking around for an acoustic guitar back in April, just after the first two gigs we did. I think there’s a difference between a recorded guitar tone and live guitar, and I think it matters for the kind of gigs we’re doing. The problem is that I don’t get on with acoustic guitars. They commonly have low, flat frets (which I find difficult to intonate well on), and normally when you plug them in, the magic goes away.

I’ve got a lot more to tell you about the Auden … but I haven’t been able to gig it yet. Once I have, I’ll feel a lot more confident about my opinions.

Fender Vintera 60s Modified Telecaster

This is what happens when I pop round to AStrings to take a look at new arrivals!

Earlier in the year, when I got my Fender American Performer Strat in Lake Placid Blue to celebrate a personal anniversary, I also took a look at the American Original Tele (also in Lake Placid Blue) that they had in stock … and I kinda warmed to it. I thought they’d make a nice pair together, but I took too long to make up my mind about it, and the guitar sold in the meantime.

The new Vintera (‘VINTage ERA’) guitars are Mexican-made homages to what Fender guitars were like in the 50s, 60s and 70s. I don’t want to say they’re a poor-man’s Fender Original, because I think that does them a big disservice.

Are they period-correct in appointments and sound? I’ve no idea, sorry. Do they sound good, and are they enjoyable to play? Very much so. The one I’ve bought had more magic than some USA Teles I’ve played. That’ll do me nicely.

Here’s my first impression of this excellent new Telecaster.

Mad Professor Big Tweedy Drive Pedal

I’ve made no secret of just how much I love the drive pedals that BJFe designed for Mad Professor. They are consistently some of the best sounding – and best stackable – pedals that I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. And I think that I have all of them in my pedal collection here at The Hermit’s Cave.

That partnership came to an end some time ago, and since then, Mad Professor has been launching new pedals that (presumably) are entirely their own design. I’m curious to discover … did the magic leave the building with the BJFe deal, or will these post-BJFe pedals stand up well against their older siblings?

The real problem with answering that question is getting hold of them. Twimble-family pedals have been turning up on the second hand market for a few years now, but the other drive pedals are still extremely rare, making good value deals even harder to find.

Follow this link to read my first impressions of the Big Tweedy.

Mad Professor Little Tweedy Drive

Like the Big Tweedy Drive, Mad Professor’s Little Tweedy Drive doesn’t often turn up to buy second hand. And I’m kinda settling on the sound of small tweed-like amps as part of ‘my’ sound, the more I think about what would go into my desert island rig.

It turned up on the same day as Danelectro’s Pride of Texas, and by popular demand, I compared them both together.

Long and short of it, though, is that the Little Tweedy Drive has a characteristic that almost ruins it for me. Follow that link for the full details.

Wampler Sovereign Distortion Pedal v2

Before I discovered and fell in love with the pedals that BJFe designed for Mad Professor, I used to have a few Wampler pedals. My wife and I both loved the demo tones we found on YouTube. In person, though, I really struggled to get tones I liked out of them, and eventually I gave up on Wampler and moved all the pedals on.

A lot has changed (for me, and my rig) in the years since, and when the right deal comes along, I’m picking up the pedals from back then to try them again. I’ll turn the results into a series of posts called ‘Second Bite’.

IIRC, the Sovereign was the very last Wampler pedal I tried back then. I was looking for a pedal to help me craft a good lead tone. I failed. Will I fail a second time?

Here’s my thoughts on my #SecondBite at this pedal.

Lovepedal JTM Drive Pedal

A lot of the non-BJFe pedals that I love (like the Tchula, and the Speaker Cranker), are all descended from the Electra Distortion circuit. I’ve had such fun with them that I’m always on the lookout for other pedals from the same family tree. It’s a bit like collecting TubeScreamers 😀

If I’ve got this right, the Electra Distortion was a module that could be fitted into an Electra guitar in the late 70s. It seems to be a really simple circuit that pedal makers have found to be very flexible and versatile. Lovepedal in particular are said to have based many of their designs on this circuit over the years.

I’m expecting the JTM to be a bit like the Big Tweedy Drive: more of a foundation pedal than a traditional overdrive pedal. Something to act as a base layer to shape the tone, if you like. Sounds like the perfect pedal for me to feature in #CoffeeAndKlon once it’s here 🙂

Here’s my first impression of the Lovepedal JTM. There’s a lot to like, when it’s boosted by the right pedal.

#CoffeeAndKlon 10: My Desert Island Guitar

This conversation was originally posted to my Twitter feed.

Good morning! I hope you’re all having a great weekend so far. I’m still buzzing from playing all those PRS Guitars over @astringsuk on Friday night. Or is it just the coffee? #CoffeeAndKlon

Coffee this morning is the very last of the Sumatran that I was drinking last week. I forgot that the machine was almost out of beans. It’s got about half the coffee it should have. I might have second coffee in a bit.

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Last week, I started talking about my Desert Island rig. One thing I didn’t do was establish any rules or constraints on what could be in the rig.

I’ve been thinking that over, and I’m feeling torn about that.

An #AnythingGoesDreamRig, where the only limit is your imagination, has its own appeal for sure. I’d love to learn what kind of gear you’d choose if you could – and why you’d go for that gear in particular.

So that could be a thing.

The rig I’ve been thinking about though is more of a #MySoundMyRig kind of thing … the gear that gives me ‘my’ sound, whatever that is. I don’t know about you, but if I was stuck on a desert island, I’d be happier with that than any other kind of rig.

My rig starts at the guitar. And it’s not a Les Paul. It’s my PRS McCarty 594, in the only colour they should ever be made in.

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I’ve got two stories to share about this guitar, which is affectionately named Deadnote. I’ll save the story behind its name for another time 🙂

When I bought this guitar, I had two 594s to choose between: this, or a Private Stock model. The Private Stock model was an amazing instrument. It rang like a bell, with a clarity that I loved. It very nearly came home with me.

But it was actually this one that I bonded with, right there and then in the shop. This one’s got a bit more bark to it. Stick it in front of some dirt, and it does the growl thing that I love.

I had the same experience Friday night, playing some gorgeous Private Stock guitars. As instruments, they were perfect for highly technical players who could make use of that extra clarity. But the tier below had that bark, that attitude that works better for me.

The second story?

I’ve been collaborating musically with Tess on and off since 92. The moment she heard me playing this guitar, she told me that this gives me the sound I’ve been searching for all that time. When others hear it, you know you’ve found it.

The 594 gives me what I love about the Les Paul – the scale length, the control layout and location, the vintage voicing. It also has tuning stability, intonation, and usable coil split sounds that I haven’t found on any Les Paul.

I would gig a 594 over a Les Paul every time.

So yeah, the first piece of #MySoundMyRig for the desert island is the PRS McCarty 594. What guitar would you be shipwrecked with? I’d love to hear how you found the guitar that gives you ‘your’ sound.

Have a great weekend, and next week I’ll talk about the next piece of my signal chain for this rig: the tuner 🙂

Changing Pickups Part 2: A Nice Surprise

This conversation was originally posted to my Twitter feed. You can find Part 1 here.

Well, the green Strat is back, and the result has been quite the surprise.

Quick recap: Fender Player series Strat, which I’ve really taken a shine to. Dropped it off @astringsuk yesterday to replace the stock pickups with a (mismatched) set of 63 Veneers from Bare Knuckle. Wanted a more vintage Strat tone.

First off – these pickups definitely deliver that vintage Strat tone. There’s a much bigger difference between the stock Fender pickups and these 63 Veneers than I expected. Might be too big a change? Still getting used to it.

The bridge pickup is really nice. The stock one was very usable, this is even better. It’s got more low end than I’m used to from a Strat bridge pickup, and I really like it.

IIRC, one of the things John Mayer wanted from the Silver Sky was a bridge pickup that wasn’t all treble. This bridge pickup delivers that.

I’m still experimenting with the right height for the neck pickup. Struggling to put my finger on why it’s not quite right for me atm.

However, I don’t really care … because position 4 (neck + middle pickups together) has turned out to be a fantastic surprise. It’s basically the clean tone I had decades ago, before I swapped the stock pickups out of my Charvel. Wasn’t expecting that.

Kristi can tell you better than me how deeply I’ve regretted losing that particular sound, and how I’ve been searching for it ever since. And now I have it again … or at least close enough to fool my memory 🙂

So yeah, these pickups are a keeper 🙂

Changing Pickups: Part 1 – Why?

This conversation was originally posted to my Twitter feed.

Just dropped the green Strat off for a pickup swap. I was going to wait until I could do a before-and-after demo, but honestly I’m not a very good (or musical!) player. You’re not missing out.

I think the pickups that Fender use in the Player Strats make sense, if you assume it’s a budget guitar aimed at newer players. They’re a little more mid-rangey than the classic Strat sound, a little hotter, and quite forgiving.

I’m dropping a (mismatched) set of 63s from Bare Knuckle into it. Originally bought bit by bit for other guitars, but for various reasons never got fitted.

Pickup swaps are always a bit of a gamble. Until you try them, you never know if they’ll suit that particular guitar, and your rig, and your playing style.

Pickup swaps in Les Pauls seem to be the worst. Raven (my Sig-T) took 5 different sets until I finally found ones that worked in that particular body. All great pickups, just a difficult guitar.

Why swap pickups at all? Why not stick with the stock pickups in a guitar?

Honestly, if you’re happy, stick with them. It’s your guitar. Don’t swap pickups just because others do.

I swap pickups either because I don’t like the originals, or because I’m looking to change the character of the guitar in some way.

I started swapping the pickups on Raven, for example, because the stock Gibson pickups sounded too shrill and ice-picky. Raven’s quite a bright guitar, and it needed pickups that would tame that.

With the green Strat (it doesn’t have a name yet), I’m swapping the pickups because I want to get closer to the Strat sound in my head. I want to make a guitar I like even better.

I’ll let you know what I think when the guitar’s back 🙂

First Impressions: Fender Vintera 60’s Modified Telecaster

This conversation was originally published to my Twitter feed.

I picked up one of the new Fender Vintera ‘60s Modified Teles today. I don’t care that it’s made in Mexico. It’s a good guitar.

I grew up with Strats, and fell hard for Les Pauls about 7 years ago. Teles – I’ve never understood. Will this one finally change that?

When we were kids, Teles were the choice of kids who played rock-n-roll … Status Quo, stuff like that. They had fat necks and you could drive a bus underneath the strings – at least, that’s how I remember them!

The neck on this doesn’t feel fat to me – but my tastes in guitar necks have definitely shifted in the last 12 months. The action is higher than I’m comfortable with, but quite low for a Fender.

The main thing to talk about with this guitar is tone.

It’s got an unusual amount of low-end output for a Tele – more than the two USA Teles I’ve owned. Makes for a warm sound, yet not muddy at all.

There’s plenty of clarity and cut too, with good dynamics and good string separation. The attack has definition without sounding too sharp. Might be soft for a Tele? Not experienced enough to say.

I’m finding the bridge pickup a little weak compared to the neck pickup. In position 2 with the S1 switch on, that makes for a surprisingly good dirt rhythm tone. Huh. S1 switching not a gimmick for a change!

Let’s quickly compare them to the Twisted Tele pickups I have in my American Deluxe. (The Elite is the equivalent model in the current Fender lineup.) Two very different guitars with very different pickup sets.

The Twisted Tele pickups are designed to make a Tele sound more like a Strat. As a result, there’s less mid-range, and more presence to the tone. If a Tele could wear a tux, this one would.

By comparison, there’s a lot more mid-range and rawness to the Vintera (to my ears at least). And thump. I can’t think of a better way to describe it. There’s a weight to the notes that works well. If this one wears a suit, it’s with a cudgel in one hand 🙂

Right now, I think the pickups are excellent, and I can’t see me wanting to change them. They sound great on their own, and should provide a great complementary tone to my American Deluxe.

I’ve no idea if other examples will sound like this, or whether I got lucky with this one. It’s the only one they had. I’ve not been able to compare it to others. If what I’ve said piques your interest, make sure you try one before you buy.

With this, and the Fender Player series too, Mexican-made Fenders are well worth a look. They’re not the badly made, lifeless planks of wood that they once were. And they stand up well against USA-made Fenders.

New Arrivals For May 2019

At a recent post-gig band rehearsal, we decided that I needed to start adding effects to my acoustic rig. The plan this month was to build out a full acoustic board – one that’ll run into the amp for shows, and also directly into a PA for open-mic spots.

Sadly, my timing’s off, and the pedals I’m targeting for the acoustic board have been out-of-stock every time I’ve gone shopping for them. In the meantime, there’s been a few unexpectedly good bargains crop up on eBay, so I grabbed those instead.

Here’s a list of all the new gear that arrived in May, along with my first impressions of each item. I’ll do a detailed writeup about each piece of gear when I’ve had a bit of time with it.

Fender Player Stratocaster, in Sage Green

I admit it – it was the unusual colour that grabbed my attention. There aren’t too many of these in sage green kicking around these parts. This particular one has one of the better-looking pau ferro fretboards – nicely-cut figuring, and very little red in it.

What kept my attention was the playing experience. The neck profile is really comfortable for me, and the satin finish means there’s nothing grabbing my hand and stopping it moving around. It reminds me a lot of the necks on the old American Special line, it’s that good.

The reason I brought it home? It sounds much better than I was expecting. It’s not a dead plank of wood like the Mexican Strat I bought back in the 90s. Dial the volume and tone down a bit to take the edge off the pickups, and it’s a very usable Strat sound.

To my ears, those pickups are a little bit bite-y, and there’s a little bit more mid-range compared to the classic American Strat sound. They’re very usable, and that extra mid-punch works well if you’re predominantly playing through a dirty amp or through drive pedals.

I am going to change the pickups at some point. I mostly use a Strat for clean tones, and I think this guitar more than good enough to justify the cost of dropping a set of after-market pickups into it. In fact, I’m enjoying this Strat so much it’s getting the set of Bare Knuckle pickups that were ear-marked for the American Performer …

Gigrig Cinco Cinco Patch Bay

I need to tidy up my cabling a bit. I’m planning on building a little practice pedal board (which is where incoming pedals will get tested), and a second little pedal board for my acoustic gigs.

With two amps to test pedals against – and two pedals to stick into the effects loop whenever I want to switch amps – it’s all a bit messy atm. I find that I’m not switching amps as much as I probably should, and when I do, I never move the cables for the f/x loops.

I’m hoping this is where adding a patch bay will make things easier. I’m just waiting for the pedal boards themselves to arrive in stock so that I can cable everything up and find out.

PedalPatch Solderless Cable Kit

I’ve been using the Planet Waves / D’Addario solderless cable kit for years, for making patch cables for my main pedal board. It’s cheaper than the stuff you’ll see featured on That Pedal Show, and for home use it’s perfectly reliable.

The one and only downside is that no-one could ever accuse it of being a compact or low-profile solution. The jacks are big (the original ones even bigger), and the cable is pretty thick. I’m looking to make a couple of small boards this month. I could use an alternative.

PedalPatch are a UK company that I first saw advertising on Facebook. Their kits are even cheaper than the D’Addario ones, and look small and compact. I thought I’d pick one up and see how I got on.

Mixed results, I’m sad to say.

The first couple of cables I made sucked tone away. Specifically, there was an audible loss of high-end frequencies. The symptom? Seems to be when you pop the shield cap onto the jack. If it takes force to get the shield cap in place, that cable won’t sound right. I found that I had to make sure that the cable was firmly in the jack and bent the full 90 degrees at the right spot so that the cap just dropped into place.

With solderless kits, I expect to make the odd cable badly, and doesn’t carry any signal at all when I plug it in. A cable that isn’t dead, that just loses some of the signal spectrum … I found that really put me off. Can’t put my finger on why it’s any different to making a dead cable, but somehow to me it is.

For my gigging board, I might just say sod it and order the proper stuff from Gigrig. I do not want to have any problems at all with that board.

Pedaltrain Nano+ Pedal Board w/ Soft Case

I’m looking to build two boards this month: one for home, for tidying up where I test incoming pedals, and another for my acoustic gigs. Both need to be very compact. The testing board needs to fit in a 19 inch space, and the acoustic board is another thing to carry to/from gigs, so the smaller the better there.

Pedaltrain’s Nano+ boards are nice and small. But are they maybe a little too small for what I’m doing? The two problems are placing the power, and placing the patch bays I bought earlier for this project.

The acoustic board is the easier one. I can’t guarantee easy-to-access (or clean) mains power at a gig, so the whole board needs to run off of batteries. Pedaltrain do a rechargeable power supply called Volto, which fits underneath the Nano+ board. Earlier versions had mixed reviews, but the new Volto v3 appears to have finally cracked it. No space for the patch bay though atm.

Problem with the testing board is that I use Friedman’s 10-port power supply for testing pedals. It’s worth every penny to know I can run just about any pedal that takes 9v without trouble – even a power-hungry beast like Fender’s Tre-Verb. There’s no way that’ll fit on the Nano+, and neither will the patch bay.

This board doesn’t need to be able to travel; it just needs to sit there and help me keep that area tidy. I think I’m going to snag a 1U rack shelf, sit it under the board, and then put the power supply (and the patch bay?) at the back of the shelf.

Well, when the 1U shelf arrived, I discovered another problem: the Nano+ doesn’t fit on a 1U shelf. It’s just slightly too long to do so. How did no-one think of that when the Nano+ was designed? I’m going to have to come up with a more creative solution.

JRAD Archer Ikon Klon Klone Pedal

This one completes the family line-up: silver Archer, gold Archer, white Archer. It gives me another flavour of klone to try with different types of guitar. Am I going to enjoy this one as much as I did the silver Archer, or am I going to be as disappointed as I was with the white Archer?

I’m glad to say that I’m definitely not as disappointed as I was with the white Archer pedal.

I haven’t spent much time with Archer Ikon; really I’ve just plugged it in to make sure it wasn’t DOA. It’s not immediately obvious to me how it’s different from the silver Archer pedal. I’m going to have to sit down and A/B them both to work it out.

JHS Angry Charlie v2 Overdrive Pedal

I’ve had JHS’s Charlie Brown v2 pedal for years now, and I like how it sounds through my Marshall Origin. Where the Charlie Brown is aimed at the JTM-45-in-a-box kind of sound, the Angry Charlie is more the JCM-800-in-a-box thing. That sounds like two complementary tones that’ll go nicely together into a ToneStack. And I’m all about finding complementary tones 🙂

This pedal has gotten me thinking … is it the only drive pedal out there that targets the JCM 800 sound? Everything else I’ve ever tried either does the Plexi thing, or one of Marshall’s older / vintage / boutique amps.

I need to A/B this pedal against the JRAD Animal and my Synergy 800 amp.

Bearfoot FX Honey Bee Overdrive Pedal

Bearfoot FX is a company you might not of heard of. And, I’ll be honest, part of me wants to keep it that way, so that I’ve got more of a chance of finding their pedals at a good price on the second hand market.

They used to make hand-wired versions of Bjorn Juhl’s (of BJFe fame) legendary designs. That partnership came to an end recently, which can only mean that second hand prices of their pedals are going to continue to climb. I’ve already seen some examples going for King-of-Tone-on-eBay prices!

The Honey Bee Overdrive Pedal is considered to be one of Bjorn Juhl’s finest designs. I’ve already got the Uber Bee, which I love, and the Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive, which is related but reportedly does have its own sound.

Fender Tre-Verb Digital Tremolo / Reverb Pedal

This one is very much an impulse purchase. I’m really enjoying using the Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 for clean tones. It isn’t a Fender Deluxe-Reverb Re-issue (DRRI), but it’s close enough for me. Can I turn it into a poor-man’s DRRI by adding the Tre-Verb’s emulation of the DRRI’s tremolo and reverb to the amp’s blackface-like clean?

First time I plugged it in, it sounded so much like a wet-only signal that I spent a couple of minutes hunting for some kind of ‘wet-only’ toggle switch on the damn thing. Turned out the order of the mono and stereo input jacks is different to what I’m used to, and I’d plugged into the second jack by mistake.

I’ve found this a challenging reverb to dial in. In that respect, it’s definitely like the reverb I remember from a DRRI! It’s so easy to nudge the Blend control just a hair and lost the sweet spot that seems to be around 9 o’clock. I wonder if this pedal will shine better in a wet-dry stereo rig?

In the end, this pedal didn’t stay on my practice board very long. I’m just too used to modern designs which keep the original dry signal and blend in the wet signal behind it. That doesn’t make this a bad pedal. It’s just all personal preference.

Gigging The Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster For The First Time

Last night, Tess and I did our first gig together. Just me on guitar and her on vocals, and a very warm and generous crowd at the club we played at.

What Gear Did You Take?

I took:

  • my Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster,
  • TC Electronic Polytune clip-on tuner
  • an instrument cable
  • some spare picks
  • and the Acus One 8 amp

Did All The Gear Get Used?

Nope. The amp wasn’t needed at all. I was able to plug straight into the PA.

What Did It Sound Like?

Through the wedges on stage? Very bassy and boomy. I couldn’t really hear the top 3 strings at all. Not sure if that was down to the monitors, the EQ from the desk, or simply being drowned out by the vocals. On the plus side, I couldn’t hear all of my mistakes …

I’m told it sounded good – not great – out in the audience. Apparently, it wasn’t a ‘wow’ level of tone. I’m guessing it sounded pretty similar to what you’ve probably heard on various Acoustasonic demos off of YouTube.

Any Problems With The Guitar?

None at all. Nothing came loose (phew). I’ll check the guitar over again before our next gig, and pre-emptively tighten everything up to keep it that way.

What Was The Reaction To The Guitar?

The audience was largely filled with other musicians, and there was definitely some interest in learning more about the Acoustasonic Tele. No-one asked me what it was; it seemed that everyone was aware of it. Fender’s marketing team deserve a pat on the back for that, I’d say.

Any Lessons From The Gig?

There were a few 🙂

The group on stage before us were an acoustic 3-piece, and I was properly jealous of their bass and percussion. Just an acoustic bass, hand-drum and single cymbal, but my word – what a difference it made having those.

The Acoustasonic Tele’s DI sound isn’t good value for money. Take an equivalently-priced electro-acoustic, and there’s no competition. Heck, I’m not even sure that it’d beat my wife’s PRS SE acoustic, and you can buy those for half the price of the Acoustasonic Tele.

If you’re going DI, it needs some help. I’ll be using my Acus One 8 for that at the next gig.

And, of course, as a monitor so that I can hear all my mistakes 🙂