Play Me Something I Don’t Already Know!

Africa’s finest: The eternal Dr. Nico.

Looking for some cool new stuff to listen to? Or some cool old stuff that just happens to be new to you? Me too!

This thread’s goal is to share some personal guitar or bass favorites that aren’t as well known as they should be. You know — the sort of stuff you play for your best musician friends after murmuring “Oh man, you are not going to believe this!”

This is not a contest. There are no rules. You can share anything in any musical style. It can be virtuosic or primitive. It can be new or ancient. It can even be something widely known, so long as you suspect it may be new to some of your fellow readers. Anything cool and inspiring is welcome.

And as if to prove that there are no rules. I’m going to start the ball rolling with two favorite guitarists who were big stars — just not in English-speaking world.

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How to Install Onboard Effects

UPDATE: I’ve added a page listing all the “How To” posts on this site. Just click the cleverly titled How-To Posts Are Here! box at upper-right of each page.

There’s got to be a better way!

Several readers asked for more specific tech advice on how to wire up battery-powered effects inside a guitar or bass, so I created a step-by-step tutorial, which you can download here.

Some historical background: Since the ’60s, many guitar companies have toyed with the notion of installing battery-operated effects inside guitars.

And “toyed” is probably the perfect verb for it. Onboard effects have earned a reputation as cheesy, low-budget products. In many cases this reputation is justified. (And sometimes it’s not — the Electra guitars of the ’80s were never particularly popular, but their simple onboard distortion circuit has generated hundreds of “boutique” clones, not to mention our own Bad-Ass Distortion project).

And why would you want to put an effect inside a guitar or bass? You can use a stompbox with any electric instrument, but an onboard effect is married to one axe till solder-do-they-part.

I have an ironclad rebuttal to such concerns: 

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Behold the Synyster Kitty!

Kitty power!!!

Okay, as promised: One more quick video featuring the Hello Kitty Strat, this time with one of those new Duncan Synyster Gates Invader pickups. I’m told the ceramic-magnet Invader is literally the hottest possible non-active pickup. I’m inclined to believe it.

Take this one with a grain of salt. As much as I love trying to make a pink $99 guitar and a Lunchbox amp sound as heavy as possible, this pickup just might sound a wee bit heavier with a big-ass mahogany guitar and a big-ass tube-dude amp. But still.

FYI, here’s the earlier post I did using a Duncan Phat Cat pickup, plus the same built-in fuzz.

Behold, mortals:

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A History of Reverb

Hi there. We changed musical history!

Tonefiend reader Scott S. hipped me to a fabulous little article that just appeared in the online edition of The Atlantic: a history of artificial reverb that’s both technically savvy and fun to read. Author William Weir covers all the right gizmos: echo chambers, plates, springs, tape echo, custom convolution reverbs (which I wrote about here), and Duane Eddy’s 2,000-gallon water tank. Plus there’s lots of of fascinating historical speculation: Did Stonehenge draw some of its ritualistic power from its unique acoustic properties? Did the long reverb times of medieval cathedrals hasten the birth of polyphony?

Quick! Can you name the first hit to feature fake reverb? You will after you read this fine piece!

Hello Kitty Strat: Not for Pussies!

Would this be anything less than awesome? I think not.

As I gloated last week, Jane Weidlin gave me her Hello Kitty Stratocaster  — the most bitchin’ $99 guitar ever conceived! I finally had a chance to destroy/customize it yesterday, in what will no doubt be the first of many desecrations/enhancements.

I’d ordered one of those Synyster Gates Duncan Invaders with the pretty white pole pieces for the guitar, but just couldn’t wait to experiment, so I browsed through the ol’ pickup collection, and found a nice Duncan Phat Cat I’d used in a Les Paul experiment some months ago.

I don’t generally recommend choosing pickups because of their names, but come on! Kitty + Cat? How could I resist?

Turns out it was a lucky choice. I hadn’t planned to install a pickup that was actually lower in output than the stock humbucker, but it lets me get nicer clean sounds, and coughs up more than enough crunch when goosed with distortion. Speaking of which: the other custom feature is a built-in-distortion circuit activated via push-pull pot (I took lots of pics of the process for a DIY built-in-effects tutorial I’ll be posting very soon.)

View the carnage in this little video. Thanks, Jane Weidlin! Sorry, Stevie Nicks!

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DIY Guitar Picks?

Borders went bankrupt. Now what the heck am I supposed to do with this pretty red card?

Behold my latest gizmo acquisition: the mighty Pick Punch!

It may look like a humble office stapler, but it stamps out standard-sized guitar picks from any compatible material.

I made picks from an old credit card, then another old credit card, and then . . . hey, folks, I need more ideas! What else would be a good, but unconventional, material for DIY picks?

FYI, this thing is sturdy, powerful, and sharp. If you stick your hand in it, you can probably make a decent skin-and-bone pick. When working with less self-destructive plastics, the edges are a little rough and furry, but nothing that a few seconds of sanding or playing wouldn’t sort out.

I found this treasure at the wonderfully silly gift site Think Geek, a nerd-toy emporium that specializes in such life essentials as the Zombie Head Cookie Jar and Alien Chestbuster Plush Toy. You can also order it directly from creator Von Luhmann via PickPunch.com. He also sells blank sheets of plastic advertised as similar to the material used in several popular pick types, plus sanders, inks, and so forth. He also sells a version of the Pick Punch that stamps out smaller, pointer “jazz style” picks. Pricing is reasonable: $24.95 for the Pick Punch, and $3.25 for enough plastic stock to 60 or so picks.

One advantage of buying directly from Luhmann rather than Think Geek: You won’t be tempted to outfit yourself with one of these.

Anyone out there in the habit of making their own picks? Show and tell, please!

“Vintage” Les Paul Wiring: BS or BFD?

Which sounds better: modern or vintage wiring? The experts disagree!

There’s a wealth of information online about the relative merits of “vintage” vs. “modern” wiring in Les Pauls. And after reading page after page on the topic, I was more confused than when I started. So here’s an attempt to pinpoint the sonic differences in a meaningful and relatively “scientific” fashion.

For those new to the debate, here are the basics: Nowadays tone pots in electric guitars usually connect to lug 3 of the volume pot, the same junction as the input from the pickup or pickup selector. Wired this way, the tone control siphons off highs before the volume control siphons off level. But in ’50s Les Pauls, the tone control often connects to lug 2, so treble is nixed after the volume pot does its thing. (I say “often,” because, as in so many other regards, vintage Gibson aren’t 100% consistent.) Here are some comparative schematics.

Most online sources manage to pinpoint the most basic difference: with vintage-style wiring, your tone retains more brightness as you lower the volume. But beyond that, there’s a buttload of b.s., including the frequent claim that vintage tone capacitors sound better or different from new ones. (They don’t.)

Anyway, I’ve made some comparative recording and measurements. After digesting all this geeky goodness, you’ll probably know whether ’50s wiring is an attractive option for you.

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It Pays to Have Cool Rock Star Friends!

Sadly, it's ony Photoshop. Jane just WISHES she had a Hello Kitty triple-neck!

It was a perfect weekend here in SF: Unseasonably warm weather. BBQ in the garden. A fun recording session for a new project by Jane Weidlin and Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Gos. And there was something else. . .

Oh yeah — Jane frickin’ gave me her Fender Hello Kitty Strat! Yes, the very same model played by Jimmy Page, John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Johnny Marr. (At least in my imagination.)

I love you, Jane!

So of course we started talking about how to customize it. Travis Kasperbauer, Jane’s engineer/husband, proposed installing an Seymour Duncan Invader pickup (maybe one of those white-capped Synyster Gates models…)

Jane suggested blinging it out with lots of beads and jewels and other eye-catching decor. And Jane know her eye-catching decor — her place is filled to bursting with mid-20th century kitsch, and her steampunk-themed studio could be the Addams Family basement where Wednesday and Pugsley rehearse with their punk band while Lurch runs Pro Tools. How often do you get to record 12-string overdubs while sitting next to a disembodied brain floating in a tank?

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Adventures in Direct Recording

Hey man — what happened to your amps?

No question about it: Amps are awesome, and guitarists will be plugging into them for a long time to come. But as threatened in this post from last week, I’ve been experimenting with direct- recorded guitar sounds. I’m not talking amp simulators, but the sound of electric guitar recorded straight into a mixing board with no attempt to replicate the tone of an amp. After all, some of the most iconic guitar riffs of all time — including Zep’s “Black Dog,” the Byrds “Mister Tambourine Man,” Chic’s “Le Freak,” and most ’60s Motown hits — were tracked not through amps, but through great old analog preamps, compressors, and mixing boards.

Not that I own any great old ’60s and ’70s analog recording gear. But I wanted to see how close I could get using modern preamps and compressors, plus plug-ins that simulate vintage gear.

And how close did I get? Um…kinda close, and I could have gotten closer if I had an attention span longer than five minutes dedicated sufficient time to the pursuit.

Wanna hear what I came up with?

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“Nashville” Tele Wiring . . . in a Strat?!

What do you get when you cross . . .

I’ve been coveting one of those “Nashville-Style” Telecasters — you know, the hot-rodded, three-pickup versions popularized by Nashville session superhero Brent Mason, and now a regular Fender production model.

Then it dawned on me: Since some of Mongrel Strats I’ve been playing with have strong Tele tendencies, why not flip the equation? Instead of a Tele that acts like a Strat, why not a Strat that thinks it’s a Tele?

The Fender version replaces the usual Tele 3-way switch with a 5-way, as shown in this wiring diagram, though many players prefer to keep the 3-way switch and add the middle pickup via a blend knob, as in this other wiring diagram.

I took the latter approach, and I am flipping out over all the new tones it unlocks. Check out this little video demo:

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