"Pedal Board Spiel (2005)"
OK, people. You all seem fixated, I dare say HYPNOTIZED, by all my damn effects boxes. So here you go: all about my NEW PEDAL BOARD, being used with Wilco and anything else I can find to drag all 75 pounds of it (including swanky road case) to! I confess that it is a bit irritating to me that people seem so fixated on HOW MANY pedals I have. This is because there seems to be something double-edged about it: a kind of fascination mixed with feelings of skepticism and/or disgust, as though it's somehow amazing that I can keep track of it all and at the same time I must be some kind of charlatan to NEED so many pedals! Well, what can I say? I didn't always use them (for quite a while I played mostly acoustic guitar), but I seem to have an aptitude for using them, and I think they're a lot of fun! Seriously, there is way too much emphasis placed on gear in general (read the rest of this column if you haven't already for further amplification of this point), and effects pedals are just another tool, another way to get color into one's life. With Wilco, I have been using more distortion devices than ever (fuzz, overdrive, distortion - sticklers!). This is because I enjoy tailoring my sound very specifically for certain songs. And as I said previously, you can't own too many fuzzboxes in my book! We are living in a time of vast choices in this area - boutique items galore. It wasn't always like this. The 80s were a dark time for a young person looking to get that nasal fuzz sound evident on songs like "Psychotic Reaction" or "Pushin' Too Hard". Everything was all creamy, soaring... Dare I say it, MIDI-controlled, pre-fab hell! At least for me... So take a look at this bunch of colorful crap. It breaks down into 2 areas: the BOARD, and what I call my SCIENCE PROJECT, which is a bunch more stuff elevated on a road case to my right.
I Get A Session"
whirly sound was fun: I created a desirable loop for the 16 sec. DDL,
asked Scott to change the octave switch as he saw fit, and I ran the
delay into a Smokey amp (Camel Lights), taped the cable to the input
jack and swung it over my head in front of two stereo-panned mikes that
Rich setup for this purpose. It gave me a tremendous blister, but it
was fun, and the kind of thing one doesn't often have time to do on
such swift sessions. Oh yeah, the guitar is my Jerry Jones baritone
- a truly fabulous instrument! Take 1 of 1.
Is it a necessary evil? A challenge? A metaphor for the relative nature of perception? Of the whole universe?? IT IS ALL THESE THINGS AND MORE! Most gigs I do out of town entail my confronting a different amplifier every time I play, unless I end up borrowing a friend's for a trip through a specific territory. One may call this AMP DU JOUR or, en anglais, AMP OF THE DAY.
It's been really hard to take this, the TECH TALK dept., very seriously (as you may have noticed.) Though I can get as nerdy as the next person when it comes to blab about gear, technique, etc., it really isn't what I'm about - in fact, it's kind of beside the point entirely (the Point being: self expression, creativity, the individual's voyage of discovery, etc.)
That said, I just got back from a little tour with Gregg Bendian's Interzone. When Gregg asked me what I wanted to do about an amp for the tour (no, low-level folk like me don't fly with amps - I don't even own a flight case for any amp I own!) I said, "Amp du Jour!". "Are you sure?", asked Gregg, unsure as to the prudence or achievability of such an undertaking. "Sure!", I enthused, "It'll come together. There are guitar amps everywhere, right?" "Hmmmmm..."
Indeed, the amp thing came together in a blink - at least amps were promised at each gig. I must confess that I rather enjoy the challenges, the absurdities, the surprises of Amp du Jour. I did it on the road in the '80s in Europe with Julius Hemphill, for example. It was fascinating, and over there you don't automatically get a Fender Twin Reverb at every gig (the classic rental company item). Anyway, it also (in retrospect) provides me with a splendidly nerdy topic for the until-now stale TECH TALK Dept.
So here we go...................
First, know what I always ask for. Not one to get too explicit (or Diva-esque) I just ask for any functioning TUBE amp between 30-60 watts in power (VERY relative turf!) And what's great is knowing that you're just going to get WHATEVER SOMEBODY ASSOCIATED WITH THE SHOW CAN SCROUNGE UP. There were 10 gigs on the east coast/midwest tour in 11 days and 3 of the 12 amps were SOLID STATE amps! See what I mean? Aye, therein lie the challenges, the surprises! Can one get one's OWN SOUND (whatever that means)??
The answer is MAYBE.
FIRST GIG: New York City
AMP: a silver face Fender Twin borrowed from Todd Reynolds (violinist in Gregg Bendian's Mahavishnu Project).
CHALLENGES: Well, it's another Twin. It's got too much power for what I'm doing, so I'll for sure end up playing it with the volume on 2 or 3, hence the amp will not be "opened up", which is when the possibility of tone/sustain enters the picture. Superb NYC guitarist Steve Cardenas has automatic Twin settings that he goes to right away which I've found work for me too: treble on 2 or 3, midrange cranked, bass between 5 and 8. Variables are the speakers, the guitar, the room. My old Jazzmaster is gnarlier-sounding than Steve's Gibson 335 (or is it an Ibanez equiv?), so I may use a lot less midrange. JBL-type speakers are super-sterile with that much headroom, so I may end up turning the treble all the way down (too much treble is the constant complaint for me with most amps). The room and/or stage may be boomy, so the bass may need to be reduced, sacrificing the illusion of tone you got by turning it up. Oh well...the soundperson will probably brighten up your tone in the house anyway, because he/she has no high end hearing left.
RESULTS: Another night with a Twin turned way down: thin, lifeless tone.
SOLUTIONS: My Klon Centaur Overdrive and my Boss Compressor pedal can get me through almost any situation. If my clean solo tone is all tiny and twanky, I just overdrive it A BIT with the Centaur, and I'm immediately happier. The compressor I used to overuse (check my tone or lack of it on some of the last Interzone alb, "Requiem for Jack Kirby") but to get a bit more presence and sustain, it comes in handy (it also enables me to get volume over a loop I'm playing along with on my old 16 second digital delay).
SECOND GIG: Philadelphia
AMP: a choice of 2: a Roland 60 watt combo with 2 10"s, or a Fender red knob solid state Twin. A choice! What to do...In spite of my general disdain for Roland amps (solid state, tone-free, LOUD), I tried this one first simply because it was smaller and lower-wattage than the Twin (and both were solid state, so tone was probably not going to be an issue). Well, lucky I had a choice, because the speaker in the Roland was blown! So onto the red knob. Tried the Steve Cardenas Twin setting with pretty liveable results.
RESULTS: Dry, lifeless tone of more than adequate volume.
SOLUTIONS: see New York gig.
THIRD GIG: Baltimore
AMP: Peavey 50 "tweed" w/ 2 12"s.
I had just confronted 2 of these beasts the previous week in Belgium (w/ Vinny Golia's Quintet, where my needs were exactly the same: medium to low wattage for good solo tone in all dynamic ranges). See the helpful diagram for what vexes me about these things, namely, channel switching (with these little square buttons). The controls are upside down as you look at the thing from in front of it. And it has a master volume knob that I couldn't ever seem to engage and which I desired to use because the amp was, again, too loud to turn up to the point where it "sings". That said, it worked (read: wasn't broken!) These things have an inherently weird tone that I can't adequately describe, but really, it was fine.
RESULTS: The most decent tone so far.
SOLUTIONS: see New York gig.
FOURTH GIG: Pittsburg
AMP: late '70s? early '80s? Yamaha solid state combo (50 watts?). This thing, generously provided by the opening trio, looked like it had been sitting in a garage unused for years. And indeed, upon trying it out, I discovered that the volume control not only had a heinously dirty pot, but that jostling it caused the sound emitted from the amp to go on and off intermittently, which it did during the gig, of course.
SOLUTIONS: Walk up to the thing and crank the volume knob up and down furiously, creating a delightfully theatrical moment mid-set. Also, the mid-range sounded frightening, and consequently needed to be severely downplayed. Treble, of course, had to be virtually nullified, as it wasn't real treble anyway, but some distortion thereof. After that, it really wasn't so bad! And, of course, see New York gig...
FIFTH GIG: Buffalo
AMP: another choice! A Fender "tweed" 50 watt and a Marshall Tubemaster solid state (someone want to explain that one to me?) acoustic instrument amp. Why even list the Marshall? Because I ended up having to use it! The Fender, which for all intents and purposes seemed exactly like those Peaveys, started fluctuating in volume randomly. The master volume knob worked (for a bit), but seemed to have no effect at all on the "driviness" - both volume knobs seemed to have no effect on one another at all. Maybe I needed a tutorial. Then there was, of course, the useless (to me, remember, I have a Centaur!) second channel. But when all this proved futile, I had to use the Marshall solid state thing with all the different channels and knobs ("transducer", etc.). Upon discovering how to access a basic tone/volume spot on the amp (and a mildly comical stadium-esque reverb), I then had to turn the thing up to 8 just to get a decent amount of gain to play over the drums. I suppose that this thing just isn't designed for what I was doing with it, but it was really strange, and strangely wimpy in the volume dept.
SOLUTIONS: Bass and volume way up, try to get through the night!
And, see New York gig.
SIXTH GIG: Columbus
AMP: another choice!! A Fender Pro Junior, or one of those "tweed" 50+ watt combos (was it a Fender? I think so). Well, we were playing on a cement floor in front of the high stage at Little Brother's, which meant that I could get away with using one of my favorite amps: The Fender Pro Junior. Sure it's only 15 watts, sure it only has an 8" speaker (a bit thin for my usual 12"-type bass-y tone), but it can be driven JUST A BIT for REAL TONE! Sustain! The first of the tour! I love these amps! They're great for recording, and mine has been very reliable. Thank you, The Avant Collective (bad name for a pretty decent new music bunch)!! I didn't have to end up playing too hard (a pitfall of repeatedly not achieving tone) and I barely used my compressor.
SEVENTH GIG: Cleveland
AMP: SG solid state combo (the club's).
WOW! The 70s! I took a picture of this baby - it has a built-in phase shifter! It has knobs like those of an institutional-size oven! It has aluminium binding! And it's HUGE! Kermit (Driscoll, bassist) had an old Kustom tuck 'n roll number this evening, so The Beachland Ballroom was batting 1000 in terms of onstage amp appeal. Anyway, the beast wasn't too bad. It just needed the usual treble-reduction therapy. It DID have a mildly confusing selection selection of channels, and I forgot to try out the phase shifter.
SOLUTIONS: see New York gig.
EIGHTH GIG: Chicago
AMP: another one of those Peavey "tweed" things. See third gig: Baltimore.
NINTH GIG: Ann Arbor
AMP: a new-style Fender Deluxe (nothing like the old ones, right?). For some reason in the restaurant where we were playing (as part of Edgefest), everything I did at soundcheck just sounded LOUD. The lights were causing lots of hum (this is where skillful use of the volume pedal comes in handy for died-in-the-wool single coil types like me). And I can't remember the amp having any characteristics, good or bad! Initially, I was happy, because the amp is not of an overly high power rating. But the acoustics of the room forced me to play the thing on 2 the whole night, so what these things can really do I still don't know (my amp expert associates have warned me to stay away from them, but then, they probably wouldn't even PLAY a gig with a Peavey, and they've saved my sorry ass on more than one
TENTH GIG: Rochester
AMP: a Savage (small midwestern company?)
This was the surprise amp of the tour. I've never heard of these. They look just like what they are: expensive class 'A' amps in the manner of Matchless, Top Hat, or Divided By Thirteen. The amp was acquired by the soundman Matt, who obviously was trying to make an impression by getting something swank. Well Matt, you did! Sure it was too big and expensive for me. And my fear upon seeing it was that it would be like a Matchless, a brand of amps held in awe by so many "tonemeister" types, but from which I have NEVER been able to extract a useable tone. But the surprise here was not only that the master volume knob actually works the amp's "drive" parameters, but that it was so warm and mumbly that I had to actually ADD TREBLE! The treble was on 5! Unheard of (for me)! Thanks, Matt! It was a nice way to end the tour. I would never own an amp so big and expensive (see photo), and I couldn't really give it a work out (even with my brother's at times intense drumming, we're still a jazz combo for the most part) but it was a nice, toneful surprise.
SOLUTIONS: Use the 2 volume knobs to (successfully) get some sustain and grain at low volumes, add a bit more
treble than usual, back off the bass a bit (this thing's darn right dark!), and voila!
That's it! I did the west coast gigs with one of my amps (later, later). Amp du Jour was again a cause of joy, of concern, of confusion, of humor.
Here's the roundup:
MOST CHALLENGING/PROBLEMATIC AMP:
A tie! Marshall "Tubemaster" of Buffalo & Yamaha solid state combo of Pittsburg
MOST HUMOROUS AMP:
SG solid state combo of Cleveland
MOST FANCY & FLEXIBLE AMP:
Savage of Rochester
MOST VALUABLE AMP (MVA):
Fender Pro Junior of Columbus
Sorry to all the folks out there who wish that I mentioned model names and numbers. I never know stuff like that, and I didn't get the idea for this goofy article until the tour was over. Thanks to Mr. Gregg Bendian for putting together a great tour and to all those kind souls who make Amp du Jour possible.
It has come to my attention that a lot of folks would like me to address issues of technique and gear/tech choices. Okay, i'll do a bit of this, but to me the most important point on these topics is that it's a personal choice, that everyone is different, that the proof is in the proverbial pudding. Hence, when you come right down to it, IT REALLY ISN'T THAT IMPORTANT. If i can save time for somebody by sharing what i know/feel, then fine. I'm a bit more pre-disposed to talk about thoery/composition than i am about technique on guitar and equipment. In fact, i find equipment talk to be pretty pointless, ultimately. For now, let me make this point: make sure your guitar has the number of strings on it that works for you, that your amp works, and that your gear generally doesn't fail you. After that, you're on your own!
MORE ABOUT EQUIPMENT:
It was an embarassing number of years before i could equate tone with gear. In spite of the fact that i still place more importance on how one touches the instrument, it is true that it is incumbent upon your gear to respond to your coaxing, pleading, and thrashing. For me, my gear epiphanies came in this order: amp, guitar, effects. I played lousy amps for so long that i just got used to the sound! My Gibson 335 (still have it) was wonderful, my Strat (got rid of it) was pretty lousy, but it wasn't until my bandmates in a group called Bloc forced me to get a better amp that i confronted the task of finding my desired sound. It all came down to tubes, and lower wattage. Then came the guitar. It started with a '66 Jaguar (hear every Trio CD) and led me to the Frankensteined '59 Jazzmaster that i currently favor. The neck, body shape, neck pickup tone, and behind-the-bridge possibilities were instantly inspirational for me. And back then these were not costly guitars.
Finally, effects. I didn't use them for years -- not since my all-feedback-no-chops teen years of fuzz and wah (nu-fuzz and nu-wah!). I have gone through many, but i see this time period as a great one for the sound explorer because there is so much choice. With dozens of boutique companies (seemingly all with silly micro-brew names) making unique items (like many, i find Z-Vex, Prescription Electronics, and the esteemed Centaur to be favorites) and vintage gear getting copied, re-issued, and auctioned on eBay, the potential for freakout is vaster than ever. Why do i use what i use? It's really so personal that it seems pointless to discuss it. Too much conversation about this has already taken place here! Although in my book one can't own too many fuzz boxes, that's just me. Pushing a button to instantly become Mr. or Ms. Rad is too easy -- what are we really about? Keep listening and playing from the heart and head and maybe we'll figure it all out together.
give in! I give in! Here's an "artist's rendering" of my most-used
effects array. Note: when i play with Vinny Golia, Christopher Garcia,
or Bobby Bradford, almost all of this stays home. But i always bring
a volume pedal -- have since the mid-'70's!