Yesterday was an interesting day! The internet, as it does, erupted into a total storm of indignation and fury because of Gibson (probably the 10th time this year alone) over the news of bankruptcy. It’s the story we’ve all been waiting for, for months and months, and it had finally arrived. Even though we knew it was coming, it seems that even I could be surprised at the amount of acid reflux on display from almost everywhere.
Let’s put it this way, no matter what you might have read, Gibson ain’t going anywhere right now. Let’s look at the facts, they haven’t filed for a s7, they filed for a s11. So, they are restructuring to manage the debt to keep the company strong going forward. In the words of the release “Gibson will emerge from Chapter 11 with working capital financing, materially less debt, and a leaner and stronger musical instruments-focused platform that will allow the Company and all of its employees, vendors, customers and other critical stakeholders to succeed”. This means, in a nutshell, Gibson will liquidate the consumer electronics business it acquired from Philips in 2014, and concentrate resources on its instrument business, that being Gibson and Epiphone guitars, KRK and Stanton Audio. So, once again, Gibson guitars (at the moment) ain’t going anywhere.
So, now that the main talking point is out of the way, what do we think is the reason behind this? Well – I for one have always been a massive fan of the brand, it’s iconic history and the products it produces. From a tone chaser perspective, which is all I can talk about, what’s not to love? I’m guessing that a lot of people (including myself) just feel disassociated with the company and its mission of constantly innovating, which for many, seems to be done ‘just because it can’. A company like Gibson doesn’t really fit into the category of a ‘Lifestyle’ brand. They can never be a company like Nike. When Juszkiewicz et al bought Gibson back in 1986 for $5M, the company was in tatters and they turned it around to the brand that we recognize from latter years. A modern company with a sharp eye for the future. This direction, for me, was the rebirth and possibly the start of the death throws for Gibson as we know it today. Thus, Gibson Brands was born and they diversified - they took up other brands with the vision of a truly global lifestyle entity going forward.
This is where they went wrong I think… Guitars and associated products at this level are not classic consumable products. Most players simply do not replace their main guitar every two years like they do their phone because of new features, they just want a solid dependable instrument to last them until the GAS leads them to a new one. You can’t invoke GAS in the customers by radically changing a classic product for the sake of it, you create GAS by making it better from that strangely inert position we have as players, of looking at something like a LP and just desiring it. We do this because of finishes, woods, quality. Not because of the implementation of auto tuners. Well, it doesn’t for me, and I don’t think it does for other people much as well.
The internet in recent years has seemed to revel in hating Gibson and in particular Juszkiewicz because they didn’t feel like the company was empathizing with them. The advent of new technologies, new shapes, new features just isn’t what people want from Gibson – they look to other brands for this - they want a solid guitar that (other than the G string slipping its tuning now and then) just won’t let you down. I don’t think they want a Flying V that looks like the StarFleet Ensignia, or an olive green J-45, or a new style LP that no one can relate too... But hang on… this isn’t really what they did when you look properly. With those insanely coloured J-45, they made a handful but did not stop making the sunburst, the guitar that everyone wants. It was just a limited edition run. The LP Traditional was made to be the classic Gibson we all know and love and it was the LP Standard that has all the new features… maybe something as simple as keeping the classic called “Standard” and the new featured one “Contemporary” may have made people not think so dismissively about them. Who knows? We are a funny bunch us guitar players, we love it when new products are genuinely innovative, but we also love to be able to lean back on the technology and style we are already comfortable with. This is why guitars should not be treated like mobile phones.
One of the things that has interested me over the years is the constant internet chatter about QC at Gibson being shocking and/or them being overpriced. I am certain that this has caused massive reputational damage to the brand and I’m a little confused by it.
Pricing. So many people talk about them being too expensive, isn’t the US made LP Tribute about $1K? Is that expensive? No it isn’t. Is it a good guitar for that money. Yes it is. They do the models at the top for silly money, but who doesn’t? You get for what you pay for, and if you want a showpiece instrument made by hand completely in the US, you spend a LOT of money. If you want a great brand name on your guitar but not the detailed handmade feel, you have the more budget friendly option. Gibson caters for all of these situations. I’m guessing that in this day and age people just look at cost and nothing else. Guitars run the line of ever diminishing returns, the higher you go, the more you pay for a smaller difference in quality.
QC. I saw a post a couple of days ago that said “I went into a guitar store owned by my friend yesterday and they had 10 Gibson’s on the wall, and they were all crap”. My first question to that person was “Who is letting them go up on the wall if they are that bad?” and he couldn’t answer, in fact, he couldn’t really answer anything so it may well have been a case of seeing a hate bandwagon and jumping on it.
Every company has QC hiccups now and then, but I still just can’t believe it is that bad – we’ve all seen the pictures, read the stories, and heard the talk but what’s the actual reality of it? I wanted to hear from someone who lives with issues such as these everyday so I jumped on the phone and talked to an old friend of the company, Lee Anderton, about his experiences with Gibson (as a prelude, you should know that Anderton’s sell Gibson’s by the truckload). He said this “We’ve had thousands of Gibson guitars come through the store over the years, and as each one goes through our own stringent internal QC procedure before being entered into stock, and I’m baffled by this. I would say that around 1% of the guitars we get are failed by our own QC technicians, which isn’t out of line with many of guitar brands we deal with. In the whole of last year we had 7 Gibson guitars come through here with a broken headstock – the way the forums read, you’d think every other Gibson Les Paul had a busted headstock. Last year I shot a video where I compared the build quality of a used 80s Les Paul Standard to a new 2018 Les Paul Standard. The build quality on the new one was significantly better than the old one. In the end I decided not to post the video as I just felt that people would accuse me of having a vested interest in selling the new ones, which of course I have! The phrase Haters Gonna Hate comes to mind.” That paints quite a different picture than what we read, doesn’t it?
And finally… As always, the internet had an absolute field day with this story, and this leads me nicely to the best thing about the whole thing. I’m a member of a Facebook group called “Petalberdz of Derm” – it’s one of those groups that exists for the sake of fun (never harmful) and just talking about gear – mostly pedals. It’s one of the only places that gives me a genuine LOL almost every time I go in and the thing I’m most thankful for, it’s a completely safe haven from the people who sometimes frequent FB groups just to be smug and overtly opinionated - although we do talk about gear a lot in there, most of the time it’s just a group of people having a really good laugh. Yesterday, one of the more prolific agitators of silliness mocked up an article that appeared to be from The Financial Times about Joe Bonamassa buying Gibson… and someone took it outside the group and it went viral. I must admit, I saw it elsewhere and posted it on the Wampler IG page and it wasn’t until much later I found out that it was just a silly joke that went a little crazy. And boy, did it go crazy. So, Dermers, well played - you had us all.
Thinking about the JB angle, just imagine what would happen if someone like him did raise the capital and bought Gibson. What would Gibson look like, would it be the classic Gibson we all know and love, or would it be the most silly thing that’s ever been thought of? It’s questions like this that distract me way too much at dinner and gets me in trouble with the family. It’s been such a long time since we’ve been able to have banter about an ACTUAL guitar player ACTUALLY owning a gear company I hope it happens for that alone.
None of us know what the future holds for Gibson guitars, I’m pretty certain that like me you want them to continue and carry on making guitars and for them to be fundamentally great instruments - but I personally think that a period of ‘eye opening’ is needed by them to understand what is really happening out there. The stories that are spread about Gibson have an element of truth about them, but in no such way that Social Media will have you believe, and I think it’s come from people genuinely fed up with the lack of connection to one of their favourite brands. There is a fine line between love and hate.
The ball is in their court, let’s hope the pick it up and start throwing it in the right direction.
I think like lots of people I’m totally and utterly ‘fed up’ (edited by request of the boss) with the price of concert tickets these days. I mean, it has been reported that on average people are paying nearly $400 to see Adele, nearly $240 to see Taylor Swift… the cheapest price for the Rolling Stones near me is about $160 (which you would need a telescope to actually see them) and so on and so forth. The question I’ve been asking myself recently is why?
I have a couple of theories about this - and they may be crap, or I may be full of BS (likely), but something somewhere has changed. And that thing, I think, is mostly due to us. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Ticket touts… Scalpers…. Whatever you call them. The advent of the internet and sales on the internet has made it very easy for third parties to get involved and make a quick buck or two (million). It’s really hard to tell which are the legit sites and which aren’t, legislation has been passed to restrict this from happening but the trouble with the law is that it doesn’t move as quick as the brains of the people who are trying to take our money for effectively nothing. Is this a fight we can ever win? Also, the promoters of the events charge what they can get, so why not maximise on ticket prices if they know it’s still going to sell out? Everyone would do it if they could.
Those of us who are of a certain age will remember the Napster ‘revolution’ and remember seeing Lars from Metallica on TV moaning about theft, copyright infringement (and the subsequent lawsuits that followed) and most people laughed at him and treating him pretty badly… I do believe this was when the whole “Lars is crap” thing came from (well, that and the snare sound from St Anger, but that’s a different story) as he was actively stopping everyone’s fun in getting free music, because everyone loves free stuff, right? It’s always been interesting as being a kid listening to rock music in the 80’s, Lars was a legend up until around this time, then everything changed.
Since the whole filesharing thing has been embedded into our psyche (and lets it, pretty certain that at one point everyone has either done it or is close to someone who has) the eventual response by the music industry was to provide streaming services (I know it’s much deeper than this, but let’s face it, it was all they could do) and everyone jumped on it as, well, for all intents and purposes, it was still free. These days a lot people pay a company like Spotify about £10 a month to lose the adverts but in my experience, in just talking to people, most people just put up with the adverts and have it for free, because right now, that concept of ‘free’ music, or a variation of it, is legal.
What does that do for the bands? And I know what you are all thinking, 99% of the bands didn’t get an income from record sales so this doesn’t apply, but I’m looking at the large-scale acts here… obviously, a massive chunk of their income has gone. Completely. There is that famous break down of payments from Spotify that shows that a band in 2016 who had their songs streamed over 1,000,000 times and received a total payment of just under $5000. At this point, I could list how much that would have broken down if those had been airs on the radio or physical sales, but I won’t, because we all know that an income from that would be well in excess of $5000.
You know what this means, don’t you? Of course, I mean that the bands, record companies, management etc etc have to reclaim their income from elsewhere (as they ain't going to take a pay cut) and the only viable place to do that is either via endorsement deals (rare that they pay that well), merch sales (and those are now pirated ridiculously – just check out all the many adverts in your FB feed of companies selling cool band related shirts) and touring. Before the Napster revolution a band used to tour to support the album in order to provoke sales, but these days it’s pretty well their only source of real income. This is a hard pill for us to swallow, especially when you consider that the most expensive tickets these days are bands like Rolling Stones (and I’m pretty certain they’re fairly comfortable financially) but they are still a business, and guys who manage them aren’t going to let them go out on a tour to support an album that won’t sell, so that income figure has to come from somewhere else.
The fans fault (and yes, this is a little tongue in cheek)
Our expectations of live shows are somewhat more complicated than they used to be… Long gone are the days when you see a band and it’s a bunch of people playing the hell out of their instruments with a few lights behind them, you now have full interactive shows with everything from massive custom built OLED video screens showing content aimed specifically to the night of the performance, to fireworks, light shows that are just incredible, complicated sets with raising platforms etc and just about everything else… Shows are now events. Each time we go to see a show we expect it to blow us clean off our feet, it has to be better than the last one we saw so touring bands are obliged to up their game every time. It all kinda adds up. As an amusing aside to this concept of crowd expectation, a mate of mine – Tim Stark - is the chief builder at Mansons Guitar Works, so he makes every guitar Matt Bellamy plays, both in the studio and on tour. Those of you who have caught a live show from Muse knows what this means, as it’s expected now by the crowd… Let’s just say that the expectation of the crowd keeps Tim a very busy man, and those guitars are hand built in the UK, so they aren’t a $100 Squier used for the final song of the night!
The sad thing is that due to the way everything pans out, we are unlikely to see concert tickets come down to a more sustainable level for your regular person any time soon. You will always be able to see your favourite band, well, I doubt you’ll see them, but you’ll be able to hear them as you’ll be SO far away from them you’ll end up just seeing the video screens. The reason many people took the Napster route, and all the services that followed them, was because they couldn’t afford to buy all the music they wanted so they downloaded it. Stole it. The people who could afford to buy the music still did… And now, the people who could afford to buy the music still can and now they are the only ones who can realistically afford to pay top dollar to see the best bands, actually see them. The irony is not lost on me.
Here’s a final thought - I travelled 400 miles (round trip) by bus to see 6 bands in 1988… Helloween, Guns and Roses (full original band), Megadeth, David Lee Roth (with Vai), Kiss (without makeup) and Iron Maiden (full “7th Tour of a 7th Tour” production) for a total cost of £31 (about $60 USD at the time). Even with inflation that only comes to £80 ($115 USD) today. I wonder what that show would cost now?
In all the years I’ve been playing I’ve made the mistake of only listening too and ripping off other guitar players in order to find my own ‘style’. Yep, this was a big mistake. More recently I’ve been listening to other instruments to expand my palette and I’ve been having a ‘meh’ time with it… coupled with a constant desire to get my head around a more modal approach to make my playing more interesting, it just ending up as a more frustration (and let’s face it, I’ve had one of the very best explain it to me multiple times – Mr Tom Quayle)… I’ve understood some of it, but you know, I can’t find a way of putting it into a vocabulary that is mine.
This has been changing recently and it’s come from the most unexpected of sources.
… so… backstory.
I first met Dave when I was about 16, he’s 8-9 years older than me and from the moment I first heard him play I was utterly blown away by his musicality. He’s a piano player. Classically trained, a music teacher, and just a frightening sense of melody and structure. Way back then, I was hugely intimidated (and that’s a reflection of me, not him, a more lovely and open man you could never meet), that I just could not ask him anything… Our paths have crossed many times over the years and although I’ve always had the utmost respect for him as a musician, I never thought of talking to him about it all. A couple of years ago I saw on FB that he was doing a solo show close to me, so I went to see him. First time I’d seen him in years! We caught up and went our separate ways… then at around that time Mrs Wilding had a couple of piano lessons with him and they became friends, he was very understanding that she couldn’t always fulfil her lesson slots due to her illness, and then last year when he became poorly she was there for him and the friendship became stronger. Once he was a little better, he came over and he just fitted in with our family and it became a regular thing - “it’s Saturday, so Dave’s coming over”.
Since the time I first met him and then during the time we barely saw each other, Dave has made a career out of teaching music/piano and has gone so far as to earn a doctorate in music composition. So, if anything, I should have been more intimidated by him than I was before. But, now I’m 44, I’m a lot more secure and confident in my musicality so I’m more open to speak to people…. That first day he came over he only played a little piano and music didn’t come into the conversation, but ever since then at some point in the day we end up playing. I am VERY lucky that my wife is a musician and my kids play everything they can get their hands on, so music is always happening in the house.
It was about a month ago and Dave was just messing around on the piano and this incredible run came out of nowhere and I sat there, on the other side of the room, with my mouth agape. He looked up and laughed and said “what?”… so, I just said “What the &%^$ was that?” and he said “Oh it was just an *insert explanation here* and it made sense. I don’t know why it made sense in what he said, because it was no different from a guitar player saying it, but I think because it sounded different, and I could then look at it and have it in black and white (and also see and understand the chord he was using underneath it) there was what you might call a lightbulb moment.
I’m not arrogant to say that because of this I have Quayle levels of theory at my disposal, but what has happened is that I’ve found someone, and a way, to demonstrate this kind of thing and then transfer it over to guitar and my own playing. I’ve started to understand how different intervals work over different chords and I guess I’m kinda approaching my solo construction slightly differently, maybe in a more piano way… not just a bunch of guitar-shaped boxes and scales, but a more fluid movement between them… but my playing has definitely changed because of my weekly jams and chats with Dave. This became obvious last weekend. As with any local music scene, it’s all slightly incestuous… the band I’m in now Dave was in during the early 90’s. So, after coming over Dave came with me one day (this was about 8 weeks ago) to the gig to see everyone. This was the week that he and I first talked theory and construction, so it was me he was seeing play that night. Then last week, he also came and saw us again, and was a couple of my lead lines caught his attention - a couple of times he looked at me and smiled and nodded… one of the times I said to him, well I mouthed, “That’s your fault” and he laughed… I realised that without actively knowing it, I had lifted part of his approach and taken into the guitar, into my own playing/style.
So, kids, the lesson in all this is this… if you have musical friends that aren’t necessarily guitar players and they have a better understanding of music than you do, pick their brains, take music as a thing outside your instrument and blatantly steal their lines and ideas. There is a huge chance it will make you a better player.
Unlike me to start a blog post with the pure intention of starting an argument! But, you know, sometimes it just has to be done. For those of you who are unfortunate enough to know me in some way will know about my music preferences... My favourite players are on a constant rotation of being ‘the best’ in my head. There isn’t a day go by that I don’t listen to Gilmour, I have epic binges of Vai, Brent Mason is the ultimate studio musician I can think off, Jerry Reed is THE man, Randy Rhoads is immortal… Nuno has the right hand of the Gods.. etc etc. You know how it goes.
The strange thing about this, or maybe I should say “strange beautiful music” thing about this is that very rarely do I stand up and gush about Satriani, but in recent times I’ve been on a Satch trip that appears to be never ending. And it’s lead me to this conclusion. Joe Satriani is the ultimate rock guitar player.
Right, OK. So let’s get this out of the way. No one can EVER take away the impact of the three guys that made rock guitar what it is today, without them we simply wouldn’t have the music we have… So, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and Tommy Iommi. Accepted, vital. They are the heart of it all… but in 2018, are they the greatest?
Here is why I think Satch wins this title (of course, this is a massive subjective issue). Of course there will be dissenting arguments, however... I need to keep the word count down so I'll try to put it in bullet points, this could have been a definitive 20k word thesis!
When you break down what Joe’s music is, primarily you’ll find a shedfull of hooks. Little lead lines that you hum along too. And then right after that, some weird crap that no one can comprehend (at the time) will fall out of your speakers and you end up looking at the CD case (I’m thinking back here to when I first got his music in the 80’s) thinking “What the hell are you on?”. Then, more hooks, more melodies, more weird crap, melodies, hooks… This is where Joe wins for me, the melodic element. I mean, if you look at EVH and Vai, that’s the one thing they miss in their playing. Those hummable melodies that appear in EVERY song, usually multiple times. As musicians, we are constantly looking for melodies and hooks, Joe seems to have them falling out of everything he writes.
Joe’s playing is flawless, in every respect. Whether he be grooving along, sweep picking, tapping, legatoing (is that a real word?) or anything else, he does it perfectly. If you listen to ANY of Joe’s live recordings, or have seen him live, you’ll notice that he is complete control of his instrument at all times. How he manages to hold the whole thing at the edge of feedback in that way and only have it come in at certain times is beyond me… His right hand is permanently locked in, his left hand never seems to drop a note at all, basically, in terms of the physical act of playing, there isn’t a thing wrong.
This may not be a big one to those who are younger than I am, or weren’t into this style of music when it was released, but believe me, back in the day when Joe erupted onto the scene, it was like nothing we’d ever heard before. I was very fortunate as I was introduced to Joe’s music in the mid 80’s, I was early teens, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had heard Vai on DLR, I was well into EVH, Hendrix and all the others… but there was just something else unheard of here. I can remember with pretty well complete clarity the first time I put Surfin’ on, the title track was all well and good – but it was the following three tracks that confused the hell out of me. “Ice 9”, “Crushing Day” and “Always With Me, Always With You”. From that moment on, every album of Joe’s that I inhaled just blew my socks off. How many other people listened to “Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing” the first time and played it again and again thinking “What the hell was that and how the hell did he do it?”. Also, when we are talking about Joe being an innovator. Let’s remember, he taught Vai how to play, Alex Skolnick, Kirk Hammet (don’t go there, that’s another conversation, but if you want to, listen to Master of Puppets, And Justice For All etc and then stop talking) and so many other outrageously good players, you have to take note of the mans impact.
Who else can go out on stage every night, out Voldemort Voldemort and smile while playing like that. You gotta admit, he’s so damn cool it’s just not funny. Even at 61, he’s still a sizeable amount cooler than any of the younger crop of players out there today.
I’ve often heard that Joe is just one major scale away from being a major scale himself, maybe that’s why I love it so much, as I’m a fan of things being in a major key and even when he’s in a minor key it sounds major. I’m not going to delve into his theoretical approach via his concept of pitch axis etc, but everything is about the music and not just the mindless widdlewiddle that so many shredders rely on. This is where he sits apart from players like EVH, sometimes on EVH solos it’s just insanity and all over the place, in the best possible way, but with Joe it always feels like it’s just the song but in solo form. The only people who come close to constructing solos in this way, maybe Andy Timmons or Nuno Bettencourt.
Dude, he taught Steve Vai. End of argument.
As you can imagine, I’ve been writing this while listening to Joe, in particular, the Live! album from 2006. In between grabbing my guitar to play along, or the epic amounts of air drums I’ve been subjecting my wife and kids too (much to their amusement) and generally blubbering on about something that I have no right too, or been able to articulate properly, because it’s all just opinion and you know what they say about opinions. And what they are like. But, I ask you this… put personal favourite’s aside (Joe is not my favourite, at least not today, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?) and think about the wider scope of modern rock guitar and the person who has been consistently updating the genre for 35 years. Once again I’ll refer to the main arguing points… Vai: technique, stage presence, insanity… the top of the tree. EVH: Without him there would be none of this I expect, he broke the mould, but he only broke it once. Hendrix. In my own (highly contentious opinion) he was a blues player, although once again, without Jimi there wouldn’t be the others (but then again we can take that all the back to Chuck Berry and further). Who else? We can list and discuss them all, but when I really think about it all as a whole, it always comes down to one man. Joe Satriani.
Now, as the much-overused meme says… “Change my mind!” - but before you do, watch this. This has absolutely everything in it and just shows what a master of his instrument he truly is...
What is it about classic or vintage gear that just oozes mojo? In general, many of the circuits aren’t made of magic unicorn dust or rainbow farts and hen’s teeth; just electronics soldered together that culminate in a particular circuit. These parts aren’t necessarily designed to be used with music-related devices, but over the years that’s what’s been adopted by the industry and progressed even further into modern technology. So, what is “mojo,” and why does it play such a huge part in our gear selections? It dawned on me the other day as I was taking stock of my gear, looking at what I would be willing to move (for space and to have a bit of extra spending cash), and things that I immediately will not sell in any way, shape, or form. I think it comes down to mojo, which is a combination of several factors. It made me start looking at WHY I’m keeping the gear I’m keeping, and so easily “thinning the herd” so to speak on some other things.
Several of my friends and I were discussing vintage gear in a group chat, and lust for various pieces of classic gear that are essentially unreachable in our lifetime (financially). The more I thought about the cost. However, I started questioning why I would want something so freaking expensive? One part is nostalgia and kind of a hive-mind of what we grew up around. Many of the older guys we idolized in high school always lusted after vintage instruments, and I think it keeps being handed down through the generations. Again, it goes back to reflecting gear communities and the thought processes behind them (even pre-internet days). 1958 and ’59 Les Paul’s are considered the holy grails of the Gibson world and the idea of playing or owning one seems incredible. Same with an original ’57 Strat, or a ’68 Fender Paisley, or whatever you’d like to use as the defining unobtanium, magic instrument of love and lust as your example. Many were lucky enough to be around to experience those instruments when they were new, but as time goes on fewer players are around that have owned yet alone played a true vintage instrument. But that’s the thing; many people still lust for them despite having never laid their hands on one. Why is that? Well, mojo of course!
The IDEA of holding an instrument that old would feel like holding an ancient relic from civilizations long gone. I’ll admit that I don’t know a load of vintage instruments, but I’ve heard a lot about them lately. Paul Reed Smith did a live video in the U.K. when people asked why a vintage Strat was so great, and his answer was “Because those guys knew what they were doing.” It’s apparent because the designs haven’t changed much at all in over half of a century. At the same time, I’ve also seen many people saying that many of those old instruments are inconsistent and that some are magic, but some don’t click for lack of a better way to describe it. Despite the proposed inconsistency, some are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to own a piece of history. I suppose it’s about collecting anything, preserving history for future generations and all that. It’s also a very cool talking point to be able to show off that cool, now-rare gear. The same goes for pedals. The Klon Centaur is probably the most famous of all of them, and despite being a relatively simple boost and overdrive, it’s an item of lust for MANY people (and a point of contention for many more).
These pieces of gear fetch massive costs in the used market, and subsequently, many companies have tried to take the tried and true formula that players lust over and create a modern, relatively affordable (comparatively) version for the current generation that captures that nostalgia and inherent mojo. Some get excessively close in recreating the feel and response and tone of the originals, some take them to new extremes and approach the old as a springboard for creating something grounded in nostalgia, but with modern amenities. It’s the reason why we (Wampler) have two variants of klones, as well as dozens and dozens of other companies as well. It’s the same reason so many places make strat and tele-style guitars. Are the tones quantifiably different? In some cases, yes, in some cases no. There are many people on the internet that would argue that other companies than Fender make a better strat, while many believe there’s nothing like the classic. Are vintage tubescreamers from the early 1980’s completely better than the ones available today? Likely not. There may be a 5% difference or so based on part tolerances and a wider variance in manufacturing, but they’re subjective… and that percentage factors in when you’re looking at substantial differences between the costs. At that point, it’s just a personal decision as to how much that sound and difference means in monetary value. Is it worth *paying* for “mojo”? That’s up to the person making the payments!
I’ve got a few pieces of gear that are purely sentimental and will be intended to be heirlooms for my kids because they are either unique and quirky, have some form of emotional connection (such as my first MIM Strat) or completely special (gifts, etc.). In the end, it comes down to the tone and how it feels to play it for each person. For me, mojo is that smile I get when I plug into a piece of gear, and it sounds great, responds great with the rest of my rig and does EXACTLY what I’m hoping it will do. It’s the feeling of nostalgia, how playing through a piece of gear makes me feel connected to an era, or a guitar hero that I’m a massive fan of. It’s not quantifiable magic, but it hits the spot for me, where it may not do anything for anyone else. That mojo is self-driven, and I’ve bonded with pedals and guitars that were considered “budget-level,” along with not falling in love with pedals and guitars that are obscenely expensive and theoretically there was no reason NOT to love it. In the end, I can’t say that for me, mojo can necessarily be bought. It’s just the right time, the right feel, the right tone, the right look that grabs my attention when I plug in.
I’m pretty old – currently staring down the barrel of being 45… So, I groan when I get up from the sofa and my idea of a great concert (as someone attending) is whether it is seated and how easy the access is to the ‘facilities’. Whereas this may sound terrible to some (especially me to be honest), it does mean one thing – I’ve been playing live since I was 17 so I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff for a long time. Along the way, having done over a thousand gigs, I’ve picked up some knowledge about some things that I might not have thought about before.
This week I want to talk about speaker placement when you perform… When I was a nipper, before the gig time, I had to keep my sound levels down low at home, because – you know, parents. I quickly found out the best way to do this was to lean my amp back (up against the wall) so the centre part of the cone was pointing at my ears. During this time, I wanted to be Jannick Gers before I knew that Jannick existed… basically, I wanted to stand between Smith and Murray on your bog standard Iron Maiden world tour. My bedroom came complete with a full-length mirror so quite often I was stood with my foot on the bed in that classic “on the monitors” way and other various poses the band are known for admiring my potential for being in the band... It was during this time I realised that where the speaker was pointing made an enormous difference to how I heard my guitar. It was either muffled if I wasn’t dead on, or bright and clear when I was. Based on this experience when I started with my first band I used to put my amp on stuff to make sure it was at head level as much as possible – I found that not only was it the best way to keep my stage level down but also the very best way to know that the people out front only heard what I was hearing. From there I went on to live mix large bands around the circuit which taught me also that in regards to upper mids and high end, speaker placement is absolutely everything. The lower the frequency goes, the more omnidirectional they become (this varies with speakers size) so you can put them anywhere and they’ll be heard, but those high ends have to be facing the right direction and high enough to literally go over the head of people, otherwise anything further than 10 feet from them with people in front of you, they are just gone.
Now, any self-respecting guitar player will be able to tell you that the best tone you get from your amp (providing you aren’t on a weak hollow stage) is to have your amp on the floor, but this is a nightmare for the people out front – you can’t hear your top end if you have your tone going into your calves, and also, if you are anywhere near the drummer you have to be literally twice as loud to hear yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen a band where the guitar amps are on the floor and the first few rows have been slaughtered by sheer volume and gnarly top ends while the player thinks he sounds incredible.
With all that in mind, where do you put your speakers when you play live? Are they on the deck, or are they elevated? The current band I’m ruining is set up like this, my cab sits on top of a flight case, it’s a 2x12” (and I have it vertically) with the head on top. This means that because I am stood anywhere between 1 and 10 feet from my cab (usually about 2 or 3 tbh), at all times the top speaker is sitting close enough to head height for me to hear it properly. I have to have my cab a certain way ‘up’ as one of the speakers is truer on the higher end and the other is more about warm mids and lows. The top speaker has to be looking at my head, so I can keep the high end under control. As I play in a band that borders on country music, I have my cleans set on very clean with some sparkly high ends going on, so I sit on that verge of being shrill if I am not careful. I am so paranoid about this that I often hold my nose and blow down it to pop my ears out to ensure I am hearing all the highs properly… Something Mrs Wilding finds most amusing!
My current live speaker set up... vertically aligned so I can hear what I am doing... I don't play shoegaze, I promise...
Well, that’s the story part of the piece out of the way – what about the facts that support it, because we all like the sciencey facts part, right?
Speakers, and the frequencies that they protect vary in directionality. The higher the note, the more directional your sound will be projected. Here’s a little test… play a low E note and then one as high as you can straight after. Do that stood to the side of your amp, then at a 45 degree angle, and then right in front (also do this crouched down if your amp is on the floor). You’ll notice that the low-end notes sound pretty identical in all three but the higher notes will sound much duller when you are at the side.
Most guitar amp speakers are 12” and they demonstrate ‘beaming’ at about 1335hz – that is the frequency they become immensely directional. So, everything below that will feel a lot more omnidirectional. To put this in real guitary terms, a tubescreamer has a hump that is most prominent at 732hz and that’s considered to be a mid-range bump - upper mids is generally thought to be between 1khz and 2khz so everything above the midpoint of your upper mids is being protected in a strict direction. Now, think about standing on a stage with your amp on the floor about 5’ behind you. There is an enormous chance you are not actually hearing the high end of your amp properly, so your tone will be brighter than you think.. chances are you compensate for this by increasing the treble control on your amp/pedals. Now think about all those people who are standing on the floor about 15’ in front of you. Yep, it’s your high end that’s actually hurting them and ruining their night!
There are several companies that try to put a stop to this happening, most noticeably the Deefleex, it provides a deflection panel that sends your upper frequencies up to your ears - this is great - but in order to work properly they stick out quite a bit from your amp, so unless you are playing on a bigger stage, you just can’t use it as it will get in the way... if you don’t have that problem though, this simple solution could make a world of difference to your understanding of how you, and your audience, hears your tone.
While we are talking of speaker cabs, here’s another thing to consider… how you have your cab laying. If you are using a 1x12” cab, the sound will spread out evenly in all directions (this isn’t strictly true, but for the sake of this piece let’s keep it simple), but if you are using a 2x12” cab it will react quite differently. If you have the speakers in your cab aligned horizontally, you will get a bigger spread ‘up and down’ than if you put them vertically which will spread the sound wider. This is why I have my cab elevated off the ground and vertical, so the cab will spread more to the sides that it does up. If I had to put my cab any lower I would put it so the speakers are horizontally aligned, so the sound goes up more. For me, in a band that plays smaller venues, the dispersal of the sound to the sides is WAY more important because there won’t be enough room for a horizontally aligned cab to fill the room with sound. And there’s no point in taking all this gear to a gig if only a few people directly in front of me can hear it, right?
When you are lurking on as many gear forums that I am (it’s no wonder my sanity is often questioned) you start to notice patterns forming, you see the same questions come up, and quite often you get to see some great answers and also some terrible ones. I was explaining to Mrs Wilding a couple of weeks ago that at times it feels like I’m in a room with about 100,000 other people and I can hear all the conversations in the room at the same time… Sometimes, the conversations just pass you by but others stick out, especially when you hear the same conversation happening over and over again.
One of those topics that comes up time and time again is “boosts” – the different kinds and where to place them, even which one… so I’m going to write an answer at my level, which is idiot level, to try to explain it all. This may contain information you already know, but hopefully, it will contain some information that you haven’t consolidated yourself yet so there may be something useful in here for you!
When you boil it all down, there are (in my opinion), 3 kinds of boosts that guitarists favour. A clean boost, a treble boost and what’s often classed as a dirty boost, this could be called a coloured boost, or a tone shaping boost or a multitude of other names. The main consideration when deciding which is for you is what you fundamentally want it to do, and where you plan to put it in your chain. My own live rig runs two boosts, one pretty well up the front and one right at the back. Unsurprisingly, they are both Wampler – the Tumnus Mini sits at the front (after the compression and pre-gain modulations) before the main gain stages and the dB+ is right at the back (well, it sits before the reverb pedal but that is an always-on pedal so it doesn’t count!) and acts as a literal volume boost.
The thing that kinda makes me smile is when someone asks online “Recommend me a clean booster” and the thread instantly fills up with shouts of “EP Booster”, “Tumnus”, “TS” and the like and more often than not no one will stop to ascertain what they need, it may be that they need a dirtier boost or not. I would say that 99% of the time the dirtier version will be better, but you know….
The clean boost does just that. It boosts the output of the signal coming in before it goes out. A lot of them are sold on the basis of a HUGE amount of boost, and for me, that kind of goes against the intention of them. Putting a clean boost in front of your gain stages will just increase the signal going in causing them to clip quicker, so you kind of get more of the same – where’s the fun in that? So, in my opinion, clean boosts are much better situated at the very back of your chain to ensure that when you go in for a solo, everyone can hear you over the rest of the band. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, a lot of people love their clean boost in front (especially if you are driving amp gain) because, well… they love their tone. So, happy days. But, once you start enjoying the beauties of a dirty boost it’s hard to ever go back to clean for pre-gain. In a nutshell, the classic clean boost will not add any clipping and it will NOT change the EQ of the signal, as EQ and clipping are so closely connected when you think about pedal dirt, it’s hard to separate them fully.
Kind of self-explanatory… takes the higher ranges of the tone and boosts it, this will in turn cause whatever sits behind it to clip into overdrive much quicker based on the frequencies that are hitting it.
Now, this is where the real fun starts, well it does for me anyway. Thinking about it, I actually use 2 dirty boosts in my rig as I run the c2 side of the Paisley Drive Deluxe into c1 and only tend to use it for high gain stuff… So, why do I do this? Well, it’s all about the options it gives me with tone shaping, and how it makes my guitar feel under my hands. The amps I play with are set at totally clean at all times, so when it’s just the Tumnus that is on it kind of gives it a little nudge, adds very little gain (clipping) and the volume is set to unity. So, it’s not really pushing the amp in any direction, it just throws a gentle EQ curve across everything while giving it a little bite. It’s barely noticeable on the clean sound, but when it’s put on when the PaisleyDog is engaged, it fills it out SO much I can’t really describe it. Everything is warmer, fatter and it really pushes it forward. Not in a way that it makes my guitar sound louder, just fuller. When I then kick in Paisley Drive side (which is effectively set at full TS mode) the combined boosting of the TS frequencies and the K style frequencies produce a wall of sound that is huge. As I use a programmable looper in my rig, I have the following combinations available to me…
1) Clean, 2) Tumnus, 3) Paisley Dog, 4) Tumnus -> Paisley Dog, 5) Paisley Drive -> Paisley Dog 6) Tumnus -> Paisley Drive -> Paisley Dog.
Main Dirve section on the right (c1) with the TS boost on the left (c2)
My hidden boosts. dB+ for final solo boost and Tumnus Mini for pre, pre boost.
Now, the Paisley Drive is set somewhat different than the Tumnus, it’s set just above unity volume with a little more gain applied so when it hits the Paisley Dog side, there is an increase of overall gain as well.
With this in mind, how does all this work technically? The best way to think about dirty boosts is that it’s not about adding clipping to the chain, well, it is, but it’s more about the EQ shapes that they provide into your core signal. EQ is everything! As the Tumnus is a K style and the Paisley Drive is TS style (in one of the modes, and that’s the mode I use it in), I’m adding a largish amount of EQ to my tone when they are kicked in. The TS brings in a hump that centred at around 723hz and the Tumnus centred around 1k (these can and will change when you use the tone controls so that’s not gospel), the change in the character and depth of the main overdriven tone is quite remarkable. It does bring in a little clipping (gain), but you know, what it mostly brings is a jump in response from the EQ stacks, so I can easily control the feedback point and sustains for ever. When people look at the settings on my pedals they are quite surprised how low the gain is set on each, because when they are stacked, the inherent EQ shapes are bringing the gain that’s already there front and centre, with a much more 3D depth... that’s not how it works, but that’s how it feels.
If you are thinking about a booster pedal, think about what you really need it to do and where you should place it in your chain. Are you after a literal boost for your solos or are you looking for something that changes your tone into something else. The vast majority of people want the latter I think, so the choice then is which voicing you want to bring in – most people instantly think about a TS or a K, but then again there treble boosters (that explode those higher frequencies that bring the character of the subsequent drives/gain stages to a whole new place), or pedals like EP booster that bring another element of width and fullness of its own character, I’ve seen a lot of boards that have an EP at the start and at the back, purely because the warmth it brings also sounds great as an end of chain boost as well.
As I’ve now been using the double boost pre-gain for quite some time now, I’m pretty certain I won’t change as it works so well, but, the older I get the more I start to think of downsizing, so who knows? Maybe we need to do a triple pedal that utilizes both kinds in a single box with one killer core gain stage at the end (I wish I was famous, I would totally have that as my signature pedal). With all this in mind… what is a clean boost in your mind – it is about clipping? Is it about volume? Should EQ play a part in this?