Tonefiend Archive

Seymour Duncan’s year-long sponsorship of my blog has drawn to a close.

I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone at Seymour Duncan, but it’s tough to know where to start! The warmth with they welcomed me into their musical family? Their willingness to consider my oddball ideas? The way they shared their knowledge so freely, routinely making me look far more knowledgeable than I am? Not to mention all the new things they taught me about tone. Without their support, I’d never have been able to undertake some of this blog’s more ambitious ventures, like the open-ended Mongrel Strat Project and the solder-squandering Pagey Project.

The first year of tonefiend posts will continue to be archived here, though comments will be closed, and I will be posting new material only at the new site.

The Secret is Out…

Last winter I tried an odd experiment: a website where players were encouraged to post their best tone secrets — the kinds of tricks and techniques that are almost too good to share. But in order to get, you had to give: The site was password-protected, and the password was only sent to those who contributed secrets.

Musicians responded, no doubt encouraged by the cool prizes awarded to the top secrets, as judged by user ratings. I also asked some cool musician friends to contribute the first round of secrets, yielding tips from the likes of composer/virtuoso Lyle Workman, metallurgist-turned jazzbo Alex Skolnick, original Chili Peppers guitarist Jack Sherman, boy genius Blake Mills, and other great players.

Once the contest ended, traffic slowed, but the site has slowly but surely grown. And now, as an experiment, I’ve removed the password protection. Now anyone can visit the Secret Room, AKA, even if they haven’t coughed up a secret. So please do!

It’s a fascinating document. Naturally, the quality of secrets varies, as does the level of expertise needed to make the most of them. I exerted a light editorial hand — only silly or flat-out-wrong tips were vetoed, and I didn’t do much in the way of spelling and grammar repair. Sometimes the contents are a little repetitious — but trust me, there is much wisdom and originality throughout.

I hope you find something helpful — and I hope you’re moved to contribute some secrets yourself using the site’s submission form. And who knows? There may be more tawdry bribes fabulous prizes lurking around the corner…

A Really Basic Pickup Install Tutorial

I always forget — which end is the hot part?

Somewhat embarrassingly, I never got around to changing one of my own pickups until I was knocking on senility’s door recently. I owe part of the inspiration to that fabulous DIY Fest known as the Maker Fair, where each year hundreds of little kids learn to solder craft projects at long picnic tables. Or maybe it was the awesome soldering tutorial by 11-year old W0JAK.

Well, after a buttload of pickup installs inspired by this blog, I guess I qualify as some sort of solder “expert,” because Seymour Duncan asked me to make a video designed to walk n00bs through the pickup install process for the first time. It was a lot of fun to prepare, and I learned some important things, like the fact that it’s hard to solder, talk, and operate a camera at the same time.

Check it out:


Those Times When It’s Good to NOT Play Like Yourself…

I am not any of these people — but I pretended to be them.

Can we all agree that it’s a good thing when guitarists and bassists cultivate their own style? Even a jaded old cuss experienced music journalist like me still gets a thrill upon discovering a new player with a startlingly original voice.

But there are times when it’s worth pursuing the opposite approach. (And not just for pragmatic reasons, such as the likelihood that you’ll get canned from your cover band gig if you mix it up too much, or the fact that the jingle client can’t afford to license that Black Keys song, but will happily pay you to record something “similar.”) Sometimes disconnecting your ego and completely immersing yourself in another player’s point of view can make you a better, and paradoxically, more original player. (I’m reminded of a Marc Ribot interview I once edited where the brilliant guitarist talked about learning Chuck Berry songs, clams and all — the “bad” notes, he suggested, were as much a part of Berry style as the “good” ones.)

I had a chance to take this idea to an extreme a few years go when writer/composer Elise Malmberg and I collaborated on a massive internet hoax: a bogus website alleging to be the 50-year history of a “legendary” indie record label. Clubbo Records is easily the most obsessive-compulsive project I’ve undertaken. The site features hundreds of pages of music, bios, photos, and memorabilia memorializing dozens of fictitious artists. Even many external links are fake — we just made a lot of little mini-hoax websites.

(Example: We licensed a photo of a beautiful ’60s blonde in a leopard-skin coat, which inspired a story about Ava & the Avalanches, the best known group of the Swiss Invasion. We wrote a story about how wearing the coat for the photo shoot horrified her, and launched her on a life path of animal activism. Where would she be now, we wondered? Running a big cat rescue charity, of course! Which inspired more than a few queries from journalists, including one from the BBC, asking to put us in touch with the non-existent Ava. And Ava’s signature “hit,” “Ski Baby Ski” has been licensed over and over, most recently for the silly Jonah Hill comedy The Babysitter.)


How Nashville High-Stringing Works

“Them’s some mighty skinny strings there, son!”

Nashville high-strung tuning is one of the guitar’s great magic tricks. It has a delicious, “secrets of the Guild” quality — you feel like an insider just knowing what it is.

Not that I did know what it is until embarrassingly late in life. For the sake of my fellow late-bloomers, I’ll explain: You replace your guitar’s lowest four strings with thinner strings tuned an octave higher than normal.

You can think of it as using the higher-pitched of a each pair in a 12-string string set. (Or the top two strings of a normal set, and the top four strings from another normal set, with the first string as the third string, the second string as the fourth, etc.)

I love how this tuning can work subliminal magic, or step front and center for marquee riffs. Nashville session players conceived it as a way to add stereo shimmer to doubled acoustic guitar tracks. But rock players have used it to great effect as a foreground sound, as heard on the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Floyd’s “Hey You,” Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind,” and Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise.”

Here’s a quick little demonstration, both solo and in a mix:


Does a Guitar Ever Play You?

The other day I posted a demo for a high-gain pickup, and I’m usually a lower-gain guy. Zyon said in comments that it sounded like Santana. (It sort of did, if you can imagine a clumsy, out-of-tune Santana with a really short attention span.)

But I assure you, Carlos was far from my conscious mind. (Or at least 20 miles away at his place across the bridge.) It’s just that the pickup’s unaccustomed searing attack and saturated tone made me hork up those emotive, minor-key melodies.

Which makes me pose this question:

Isn’t it a rather pathetic rationale for having one of the main reasons for having a bunch of guitars? Not just the sounds they make, but sounds they force you to make?

It’s not just me, is it?

What’s the Deal with Alnico VIII Magnets?

Like this royalty-free clip-art illustration, the Alternative 8 manages to be both aggressive and round.

I was talking to some of the Seymour Duncan dudes the other day about pickups models deserving greater public awareness. One of the first names on everyone’s lips was the Alternative 8, a a high-output humbucker that uses a powerful alnico VIII magnet in lieu of the alnico II or alnico V magnets that fuel the vast majority of non-ceramic pickups.

I was intrigued, so I popped one into the bridge position of my Hamer 20th Anniversary. Yow.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I tend to gravitate toward lower-output, vintage-flavored pickups, generating gain from the amp or a number of sketchy homemade distortion boxes. The Alternative 8, with its blistering DC resistance of 17.68k, is definitely a departure for me, but I found myself captivated by its deft balance of aggression and definition.

Have a listen and see what you think. Post-mortem after the video.


A Cheap Archtop Upgrade!

Sounds like MONEY!

I’ve said it so many times, I feel like the parrot of pickups, but here goes again: These days the weakest links on inexpensive Asian and Mexican guitars are invariably the pickups. Upgrading them often yields a princely axe at a pauperly price.

A perfect example is the Ibanez Art Star archtop I just upgraded for my friend Dusty. These aren’t especially sought-after models — they seem to sell used here in the States for for between $400 and $500.

The guitar looked cool and played well, but the pickups were murky and undistinguished. I replaced them with a pair of Duncan ’59s, and man — a merely decent guitar suddenly became very good.

Dusty’s not really a jazz player — more a cool indie-rock-pop guy — so I figured he’d like the option of a brighter, single-coil sound. I requested the ’59 model with four-connector cable (plus chrome covers to maintain the retro look), and used push/pull pots from StewMac for humbucker/single-coil switching. That was also my rationale for choosing “vintage-style” wiring, which keeps the tone relatively bright, even when rolling back the tone pots. Dusty also wanted to keep the guitar’s flatwound string as a departure from his usual roundwounds, which was all the more reason to keep the tone as bright as possible.

Just one disclaimer before you view the demo: Dusty is left-handed, and I am not. I foolishly bravely recorded the performance playing the guitar upside-down without restringing. So you’re going to have to imagine how it would sound played confidently and comfortably! (It was an interesting experience, to say the least, one I wrote about it here.)

Check it out:


Are Your Sinister — or Dextrous?

“Why is everything upside-down?”

You know the etymology behind the word “sinister,” don’t you? It’s the Latin word for “left,” which, according to etymologists, became associated with evil, thanks to the medieval belief that left-handed people were deceitful and probably possessed. Meanwhile, “dexterous,” which means adept with your hands or brain, is from the Latin “dexter,” meaning “right.”

What are the odds that a right-handed person came up with those ideas? 😉

Lefty guitarists have it tough. They have fewer instruments to choose from, and they usually can’t just pick up any old guitar and start jamming. When I wrote for Guitar Player, we tried hard not to be “side-ist,” and would always refer to the “picking hand” and “fretting hand” rather than the left and right when discussing technique. But still.

I have left-handedness on the brain because I upgraded a left-handed guitar for a friend. I threw caution to the wind and recorded a demo video upside-down, without restringing. It ain’t pretty — but it sure is interesting! I’ve never undergone any sort of neurological testing, even though I look like the sort of person who should have electrodes permanently attached to his skull. But after playing upside down for a few minutes, I could practically feel parts of my brain pulsating with unaccustomed energy. I held a wine glass in my right hand, and it felt wrong. Then in my left, and it still felt wrong. And man, was it tough typing! It was a weird, disorienting mental high. 


Mixing Magnets in One Pickup

Aggressive on the bass side, sweet on the top.

I was talking to Seymour the other day about the types of magnets used in vintage Fender pickups. I knew that Fender used strong, punchy alnico V magnets in most of their models, but I didn’t know that the earliest Teles used softer-sounding alnico IIs, or that the first Strats used even softer-sounding alnico IIIs, a detail confirmed by Fender’s page on the topic.

I recently had a chance to compare the sound of alnico II and alnico V while hacking together guitars for the Mongrel Strat Project. I’d tried an Alnico II Pro in the middle position of this mongrel, and liked it. But as I continued to experiment, I gravitated back to the more traditional alnico V sound — maybe because I play so much in lowered tunings, and in bands without bass, so I really like the strong, defined fundamental you get from an alnico V.

But until now I’d never tried literally splitting the difference via Duncan’s Five-Two, a hybrid that has three alnico V rods for the bass strings and three alnico II rods for the trebles. The idea behind this arrangement is to deliver a bold, snappy sound in the low resister, but with some softening and sweetness on top.

How does it sound? You tell me — here’s a demo video I made. Plus, there’s a micro-contest: The first person to name the tune I’m playing will have their name immortalized for the ages mentioned in an upcoming post. (That might be better than a poke in the eye, depending on whose eye it is.)

Have a listen: