Gear snobbery in 2017

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I’ve not had a good internet based rant for ages so I think it might be time to dust off my sword and shield and dive on in…

Part of my job is to answer questions, research products, keep an eye on the competition and the like so I quite often tour the forums (or, as this is 2017, the social media equivalent) as it’s the best way of discovering what is around, what is coming, and what people are leaning towards. Mostly, it’s a very rewarding process but sometimes I read things that make me want to stop the world and get off. My main frustration tends to be geared towards the attitudes that appear to be forming, as you watch them grow and become a thing, it’s very frustrating because once you do this long enough you see it coming and you want to be able to stop it, but you are powerless.

The latest one, or should I say, the one I’ve been noticing for about a year or so now is in full flow.

Inverted Gear Snobbery.

You may have noticed this, as it often revolves around brands such as PRS, Strymon, Two Rock and even sometimes the high-end effects manufacturers such as ours (yes, I know Strymon are that as well but let’s face it, they are a force of their own these days and stand above the resst of the market in that particular field). You’ll notice several reoccurring comments. “Praise and Worship” and “Blues lawyer” and both of these send me postal.

 

Praise and Worship

I despise labels in music, to me, it’s either rock and roll or it’s not. I tend to personally dislike the things that aren’t in my head rock and roll, but you know, that’s me. However, rock and roll isn’t what its common label is, it’s anything cool, edgy, different, powerful, emotional. So, Justin Beiber’s “Love Yourself” is rock and roll, and "Rockstar" by Nickleback isn’t. It’s not about the chord structure or being guitar-based, it’s about the passion, performance and the delivery. If a song is delivered on a Sunday morning, in a church and delivered with passion and power, who cares. To me, it’s still rock and roll. It’s just a genre of music, it has its own style, its own way of doing things… so, there tends to be the Trifecta of Strymons on the board as let’s face it, if you want mental delays, reverbs, modulations to be all over the place, all the time, and have it under control, is there a better tool for it? Nope. Not right now. So why is it a problem? I don’t know, I’ve asked people why and they just laugh and make derogatory comments. It’s all a little strange really, but boy, do they enjoy making disparaging comments about those Strymons and lots of booteek level pedals that are on the board.

 

Blues Lawyers.

This gets right on my nerves as well, so what if someone has worked hard in their career and now has a massive amount of disposable income. So they buy a $4k PRS and play blues licks on it, who cares? What difference does it make? If someone wants to spend their money on a nice guitar, why shouldn’t that, why does it mean we should mock them and make fun of them? Music is being played, and that’s a good thing.

 

So (and yes, I also hate paragraphs that start with that as well), what is this about? Why do people instantly judge people based on the fact they have nice things. Why is it an issue if a random P&W guy uses 3 Strymons for 6 songs on a Sunday morning, or if a successful lawyer owns a few extremely nice PRS. The only issue should be “are they being put to good use”. If they are bought to be put into a bank vault, then yes, we should be in an uproar, but in my experience, they generally aren’t. A lot of people wear their gear as a badge of honour, as a status symbol, but that’s no difference to a young guy and his impressive jewelry or sneaker collection, someone who collects books, paintings, watches, cars… anything. What difference does it make? Do people with a PS1 mock the people with a PS4? No, they don’t.

A lot of this, I think, stems from inverted snobbery that maybe comes from a little jealousy. You’ll often notice that the guy making the most noise is the one with the old TS and Strat into a Fender amp. Or a Gibson into a Marshall. Often runs alongside the “If it wuz good enuf for Jimi” comment or similar. I quite often respond to “what difference does it make, it’s a subjective issue”. Gear is here for one reason and one reason only, to make the people using it happy. If the gear does that, then job done. Just don’t look down on the people who choose to do it differently than you do. Both styles are good. Both are valid. Both have a place. I see a lot of it come from people perceive that 'blue lawyers' drive the price up, do they? How many 'blues lawyers' do you see that have a Klon, or a Dumble... in my experience, none. All their stuff tends to be new and shiny. 

As an ending to this rant, I have to declare this. I play a PRS. I gig with 2 Strymon's and 4 Wampler's. The picture above is my board. I have a law degree, but I don’t play the blues much and it’s pretty well-known I’m hugely unlikely to be playing in any given P&W setting anytime soon. How about you listen to my tone and what I play instead? How about we listen to what the guys with the Strymon's and the nice PRS do instead? Why do we listen and judge something so easily with our eyes when in this case it’s our ears that we should be using, not any gear based preconceptions that are invariably saying more about the person saying them than the person under ‘discussion’.

</rant>

Relic vs. New - Where do you stand?

“Relic” guitars have become an ever-growing popular trend in gear culture lately, and with any trend, there’s always a division of people who love or hate it and all things between.  For those wondering, a Relic is an instrument (the term applies to more than just guitars) that is intentionally beaten up, scratched, chipped, dented and made dirty to simulate extensive use and abuse on the road for decades. There are varying ranges, from barely noticeable light wear to full-on beat to death, where some extreme cases look like they tied the guitar to the back of a truck and proceeded to drag it down a gravel road for a dozen miles or so. There are very well-known companies that have sprung up over the past few years that their business model is making a brand-new guitar look like it’s 50 years old and seen some sh*t.
 
The interesting side of it is that it’s a very divided line of people that either loves them or despise them. I’m on the like/love side of relicing, but my motto is always that everything is great in moderation (more on that later). Nothing truly beats the feeling of a brand-new guitar. Pristine paint, smooth neck in flawless condition, hardware that is still shiny with no fingerprints on it…. even the smell of a new guitar is fantastic. There’s nothing like finding that blank canvas, ready for hundreds of hours of blood, sweat, and tears to be poured into it during its journey with whatever player acquires it. There’s also something to be said about preserving that majesty. There are a plethora of waxes and polishes and lemon oil for the rosewood fretboards… all steps to try to keep the cherished instrument in the top quality that it can be in. 
 
After some time though, despite our best efforts inevitably you’ll encounter that first dreaded ding. It’s a truly sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach, where you can feel all your nerves firing in your body as you brace yourself to check what awful fate befell the spot that just took the brunt of the impact. If you’re lucky, it’s a surface ding or scratch where it’s nearly invisible to the naked eye, and it requires odd light angles to be able to truly see it.  In the bad scenarios, you’re looking at potentially evasive maneuvers to attempt to fix whatever happened. Therein lies the problem: it’s something that is gut-wrenching and makes you just feel like crap as soon as it happens. It’s the curse of a gorgeous guitar: it’s pristine and amazing, but if you ding it up then it detracts from the overall look (and the feel if something happens to the neck), and it also affects resale value in the end. I know, I know… the person with the most guitars wins, right? But sometimes a fit of GAS strikes, or just life, in general, brings up the need to move some gear, and the condition it’s in plays a huge role in that sale.
 
Then there are the old favorites. Some of them earned their badges along the way in smoky bars, gig after gig every weekend. The road warriors, the guitars that have some love… dents, dings, paint missing, dirty fretboard…the opposite of pristine. You can see a lot of famous guitar players with guitars that they’ve obviously played the life out of to the point where they are barely recognizable from the original: SRV’s Strat comes to mind, same with John Mayer’s Strat. Keith Richards tele, Muddy Waters tele, Rory Gallagher’s Strat, Brad Paisley’s ’68 tele, Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” … the list just goes on and on and it’s impossible to list all of them. These guitars have had hundreds of hours of playing and thousands of gigs to get them to look like that, and they have become signatures for each of those artists to where they’re instantly identifiable (because those beat up guitars ooze vibe and look incredibly cool). 
 
The reality of the situation is that not everyone can put that much time into their instrument, and subsequently personalize it to its full road worn glory through their own personal musical escapades. I’m not going to get into details of poly vs. nitro, but that plays a huge factor when it comes to the natural wear of the finish on a guitar. I’ll use myself as an example of why I love relics, and I think that a few people may be in the same boat. I’m a 31-year-old IT desk jockey that enjoys jamming on the weekends. Rarely gig anymore due to work and family obligations, but playing guitar is still my outlet that provides stress relief more than anything in this world. I love the look of a well-done relic, but I literally will never be able to do that naturally to a guitar. There are a lot of my friends in the industry that has been playing for a very long time, and despite them gigging all the time their guitars haven’t worn very much at all after a decade or more of heavy use. The reason being that many builders/manufacturers have improved the processes and quality of the finishes they’re applying, and subsequently they’re less likely to fade/chip/etc. compared to the materials used 30, 40, and 50+ years ago.
 
The number one thing that we see people say that are anti-relicing is “just play the crap out of it and let it wear naturally. It looks fake, etc.” If you refer to my scenario above, that’s just not an option for me or many others. Relic’s provide the ability to experience the feel of a worn-in instrument in a scenario where it couldn’t happen naturally. Again, I work a desk job and personally can’t guarantee that I’ll get another 20-30 years to attempt to relic something myself naturally. We live in one of the greatest technological times ever, and if the craftsmanship and skill are there, why wait 30 years when you can have the guitar that you’ve wanted, often immediately available (or whatever build time some shops may take, which is 9/10 times always less than 20-30 years)? If a relic is not someone’s favorite thing, then there are a plethora of builders that can create a pristine, immaculate work of art to suit those tastes as well. There are people that wouldn’t like those guitars just as much as there are people who don’t like relics. That’s the beauty of guitar gear, is that everything is subjective, and I can guarantee that not everyone will agree with each person’s gear habits. That’s completely cool, and that’s what makes us unique!
 
Back to why I like relics: I’m a bit clumsy. There, I admitted it. I’ve made my fair share of “oops” moments that sometimes ended up with no issues at all, but I’ve also had some doozies (spinning a PRS and the strap coming undone, with it subsequently hitting the floor and beating up the back… I’m particularly not proud of that). I’ve been playing my Crook Custom paisley telecaster and bumped up against a desk and put a ding in it that made me sick to the stomach. However, with a relic guitar, it's already beaten up! That dreaded first ding mentioned above is nothing but a beauty mark to personalize it and add its own story to the life of the guitar. I’ll never forget my Jason Wilding saying that the moment he gets a new guitar, he drops it on the floor to get that first ding out of the way. I was appalled at the notion of that, but the more I thought about it that’s one of the most liberating feelings imaginable. Not having to worry about whether you bump into things and what aesthetic damage will occur is such a free feeling. Guitars are tools and should be treated as such I suppose.
 
I mentioned earlier about “everything is good in moderation”. This is where I’m sitting with the whole relic thing: If it’s done tastefully and in a realistic fashion, then a relic can be a gorgeous thing. I’m not a huge fan of the heavy relics, but that’s just a personal thing. I can respect that people like those and would never put anyone down for liking those. The key thing that sets these custom builders apart is the attention to detail. Doing your research and seeing what builder fits best to your end goal is the key to a great finished product you're happy with. The other option is DIY relicing which would save some money, but there’s a learning curve and it may take a few trials and errors to get the technique down to fit what you’re going for. If you want to get into relicing your own gear, I highly suggest perusing the catacombs of Google and TheGearPage.net and other forums like that to see what has worked and what hasn’t for others before diving head first into banging up your favorite instrument. Buy a couple of cheapo guitars and see what kind of trouble you can get into, what methods work and what doesn’t. It can get expensive, but the feeling of completing a DIY project successfully is unparalleled.
 
To summarize, yes, I’m looking at it a lot aesthetically. That’s not necessarily the main thing with relics, but that’s a large part and the first thing that people comment on is the visual aspects of it. I didn’t even touch on the ways that the neck can feel even better when it’s bare wood, or how having some of the finish off of the body can let the wood breathe a bit and add some sustain…etc. That may seem like voodoo to some people, but if others think it makes a difference, then why argue? I guess my main goal with this entire article that I’ve rambled on about is that whether you like relics or not when you see one that you don’t like, don’t automatically bash it. If it’s not your thing, then it’s easier to skip over the thread and ignore it than to just openly bash someone’s happiness. I've got guitars that I try to keep in pristine condition, and I've got guitars that I really don't care if they get dinged up or bumped into things. There doesn't have to be a clear line drawn in the sand on the subject, you can like or not like any of what I just wrote and there's no problem with that. Tone and gear preferences are purely subjective in every sense of the word, so have some fun with it!

Tone is all in the fingers?

As you may know, we run an extremely lively group on Facebook, imaginatively named “The Wampler Pedals Tone Group”. Feel free to click on that and join us.

We are quite proud that in the most, it’s very unlike MANY other pages that talk about gear, as generally there isn’t much trolling and everyone is there because it’s a ‘safe’ place to talk openly without much in the way of come back. I say ‘much’ because as we’ve got 10k members, it does sometimes kick off in there, and when it does Alex and I have to make like Gendry and bring the axe to any particular party that might be in full flow.

At the start of the weekend, there was a classic post that ended up in somewhat of a 'heated debate'. It was the classic "Tone is in the fingers" comment that people reacted too, and then others reacted back. It was one of those posts, you know what it's like...

ANYWAY... This started me thinking. How can we look at this issue objectively and see if it’s true. Or if it’s half true. Or if it’s crap. At the very moment in time i as thining about it I received a barrage of texts from my friend Jamie, utterly pointless ones (because if I am being honest we have a similar sense of humour, that of a 12 year old boy, and are constantly texting each other stuff just to make the other laugh), but as usual they were very funny. As I was texting him back I had what you might call a lightbulb moment, because the best thing about Jamie in regard to the question mentioned above is that he has spent a lot of the last 10 years as the guitar player in the show “We Will Rock You” (where they are very very fussy about tone and you HAVE to sound like Brian May does as much as possible to be even considered). He is unique in this thought process because he has the rare position of being friends with Brian May and has toured with him... So, as he has spent his time using gear to sound like someone and then had the opportunity to play though that same person’s real rig, I thought I’d put the question directly to him…

JW: “Hey Jamie, I want to ask you a specific question but before I get there, I'd like a little back ground first... So, the We Will Rock You (WWRY) show, how long have you been doing that?”

JH: “I first started in 2007 as the sub guitarist and went on to be “Guitar #1” in Europe (at Brian’s request). So far I’ve played the show in UK (including the tour), Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. All this means I have to do all the signature Brian stuff and I'm the one that goes out on to the stage every night and plays the solo from Bohemian Rhapsody as a visual part of the show.”

JW: “What was the requirement for gear in the WWRY show?”

JH: “We had to sound as much like him as possible, so that includes a Red Special guitar, Fryer Treble Booster, big chorus and authentic AC 30’s. I went on a personal mission to get as close as I can so I got a different treble booster, the one that is worn on the strap, had the pickups replaced on my Red Special to the ones wound the same as Brian’s with old 60’s magnets and even the Bourne Pots which are slightly different. All this is integral to the tone, THAT tone.”

JW: “So, how close do you think you got to Brian’s tone with that gear?”

JH: “To be honest, the gear is really important but it’s more about getting into the headspace of how Brian plays and using his techniques. For example, the sixpence, the belt pack booster BEFORE the wireless system, the using of the finger to brush the string, the almost regal way he phrases his runs, pre-bends and his vibrato. So, it’s just as important to use the fingers in the way he does as it is to have the gear, but it’s more important to get into his mindspace and work out what he plays and how he plays it. There are so many different things that make up his sound.”

JW: “You also toured with Brian – so when you played Brian’s gear, how close can you get to him”

JH: “I think as close as anyone can get by getting into that mindset, but it was still only really close, because I’m not Brian. When I am playing like him, I exaggerate the things he does to make it sound more like him to make those signature parts work, but I’d say it’s impossible to truly 100% sound that way, but I think we (the guys who really really try) can get close enough for a lot of people to question who it is, providing we have the right gear and right mindset. When we played Hyde Park in London, I got to rip through his entire rig at huge volume, because that’s my childhood right there, I was so happy… and it sounded so good, Brian and Pete (Brian’s long serving tech) where there, and they said I was really really close to ‘THAT’ sound”

JW: “So, is tone all in the fingers or all in the gear?”

JH: “It’s in the fingers, and the gear, but most importantly, it’s in the mindset and the approach to how you make the gear work and appreciating that the phrasing along with it, that is actually as much to do with the tone than anything else. It’s all as important as each other.”

So, what do we make of all that? Let’s think about what Jamie was saying, and let’s face it, he’s employed to sound like Brian as much as possible and he went the extra mile to do it (and, as Queen own the show he's employed by Brian to play like him). He can get really close by employing the same gear, the same touch and most importantly the same mindset. So, it would appear that tone is not all in the fingers, or the gear after all. Everything is important, everything makes the tone, but you have to be thinking in the right way first.

Jamie is a session musician from the UK, now based in Sweden. He endorses and is endorsed by: Music Man, Mesa Boogie, Massive Unity, Two Notes, Steinberg, DiMarzio and many other incredible manufacturers. You can catch him on tour this year with The Champions of Rock in Scandinavia, see his instructional videos on LickLibrary and buy materials from his website, jamiehumphries.com

 

Death and Music Sales

In the past few years, the music community has been hit extremely hard with deaths of many famous musicians from a multitude of genres. Several led a good life, but many left this place way too soon for reasons we will likely never understand. There has been a multitude of tributes and great homages to these artists, which is fitting for the impact they left on so many.
 
Seeing as we like keeping our followers informed, we often share music news that may be interesting to people who like our page, because we personally find it interesting. This could be humor (we try to keep it light), some in-depth questions regarding personal preferences in gear and popular gear culture, and even the sad news as well.  One thing that I started to notice is following a celebrity death, their music sales would be trending in the music store (I’m an iPhone guy, so I’m referencing Apple Music/iTunes). When you go to search, Apple comes up with a list of the top 10 most searched items, and consistently after each musician passed, their name or bands they were in are at the top of the trending searches.
 
I started noticing this trend in 2015, and it’s stayed consistent after each high-profile death. Why is this? The very first thing that could be said is profit. It’s an opportunity to cash grab and make some extra money from the tragic event. I’d like to think that isn’t the culprit, but in today’s world, it’s too real of a possibility. I’m one to try to find the silver lining in things, so I’m going to look past the $$$ and focus on what I’ve noticed the past few years, and how it may have a ripple effect down the line.
 
So why the sudden surge in interest in their music after the artist has passed? My first guess is nostalgia. During my life, I’ve drifted from one genre of music to another in phases, but I always love the “classics” that defined various parts of my life, and those songs/albums will always act as a bookmark of sorts to a memory (good or bad). Being 31, Linkin Park’s first two albums left a mark on me during my awkward teenage years, so when I heard about Chester passing, I immediately went back and grabbed those two albums on iTunes and had a bit of a nostalgia-fest. When I first started playing the guitar, the album that drove me to want to play non-stop was BB King and Eric Clapton’s “Riding with the King”. When BB passed in 2015, I took it a lot harder than I expected, because I felt as if I had known him because of spending so much time listening to his old records and trying to (admittedly) openly steal his licks. Again, it was a resurgence that made me go back and listen to those records, and if I didn’t have them then I downloaded them to fill the void that my heart felt like it had after losing a piece of my upbringing.
 
Another reason potentially behind the increase in sales is curiosity. I’ll be the first to admit that I liked a few of Prince’s songs, but it wasn’t until his death that I really became interested and started studying his catalog. He was a renowned guitarist and songwriter, and I was curious WHY? I spent about a month learning some of his songs and I totally understood it…there was an undeniable groove and feel to his music that set it apart from everything else.  This made me think that if it did that for me, my hopes were that it also sparked others who may not have been interested before to check out his music. This is a bit of a silver lining that is overlooked but hopefully is true.
 
With every famous musician’s death, the subsequent reaction is a boost in their music sales. In that case, I would hope that a young kid just learning to play music or write songs would see that potentially unfamiliar name on their trending list, and check out an artist they would otherwise have overlooked. Again, I think I’ve romanticized this in my mind, but if a single young kid can be exposed to great music, that it may change their life and push them to become the next Prince, or BB King or Chris Cornell, etc. then their music has made an impact (which I like to think was the goal in the first place for many artists).
 
 
 

...you don't need no pedals, man, it woz good enuf for Keef

... yep, hear that all the time. It's almost up there with the meme of Jimi with the caption "Jimi plays without true bypass pedals and everyone still manages to enjoy his tone.

Those, amongst others, are the things guaranteed to make us roll our eyes and yawn. We've even had someone imply recently that professional guitar players don't really need fingers.

So, let's look at this properly. Let's have a think about the guitar signal, its path, pedals and what is needed and what isn't. Actually, let's not. Let's just remember this.

Guitar pedals are a tool that some people enjoy using. They are not essential. They are not invalid. They are a tool. Put it this way, if you were walking past a stone mason or carpenter working would you shout up to him "What you using that drill for bud, Christopher Wren didn't need that when he designed and built St Paul's Cathedral in 1675!" - I doubt you would, I doubt anyone would. Well, I hope no one would because basically, that would be a fraction silly.

We, as always, were having a discussion about this the other day. We'd seen many outrageous comments from certain people online and we were trying to contemplate it properly and we sort of came up with this. Guitar pedals are like a spice rack full of a wide range of spices. You sometimes pick on to make something a little better, you sometimes don't. We, and I'm guessing others in our industry, feel that we do not expect your entire playing life to revolve around pedals, we just expect that there are times when you feel like the tone you are chasing is not quite right and there may be something out there to help you get it. It's become more and more obvious over the years that more and more people are using pedals (helped that company's like ours make pedals that sound really good these days, as previously, not many of them truly did) because they give you better tones, they give you more options. If you have a decent clean amp, spend a few hundred bucks on your favourite pedals and they will be able to transform that amp into any number of other amps. Your Marshall can become a Fender and your Fender can become a Marshall... or a Vox, or a Randall, or... or.... or.... Certainly easiler than having to buy a new amp every time you want to change your gain choices!

So, consider your base tone, the one you love more than anything, a nice juicy perfectly cook steak (apologies to the vegetarians out there, but this is the best way to describe it). Sometimes you want it straight up, nothing fancy, just as it comes. Other times you might want it to have some pepper on it, or pepper sauce… other times you might want the full cumin rub, or even mustard… you can have it any way you like.

Your pedal box IS your spice rack, and let’s face it, would you want to go to dinner repeatedly with a person who cooks in the same bland way every time? Sometimes it would be great, others…. Just boring.

Anyone know how Keef likes his steak?

 

 

 

Live Music Venues - are they designed for it?

So, I got to thinking the other day about the venues I play in… I’ve been playing in some of them for 26 years now, some are new, some have disappeared for ever and some have had more visual changes than The Mountain in GoT.

Before we start with this I need to remind you of my location, I live and gig in the South West part of England, a glorious county called Devonshire, better known as Devon, affectionately referred to as The Shire. From around here we’ve seen bands such as Jethro Tull and Muse (as well as many others) spring to life and has been the breeding ground for bands such as Radiohead and Coldplay. So, we’re not shy in having a live music scene.

When I started gigging, waaaaaaaaay back in the early 90’s I mainly played in pubs. Proper British pubs, usually owned by the Landlord and/or Landlady and they loved live music. A few of the pubs were owned by the Brewery, but they were left alone to do their thing. Throughout the 90’s I played in all sorts of bands, from classic rock to tribute bands and even some very early reach into a country rock band. As far as I can remember (and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then) every one of those pubs, or clubs, sounded great. And by that I mean that acoustically they were fantastic, there wasn’t much in the way of sound bouncing around, loads of stuff up to absorb reflections and we could rock up, tune up, turn it up and rock out without fear of the room making us sound any worse than we already are… And let’s face it, I was 17 when I started gigging so just by the gear we could afford we didn’t sound as good as we could have!

Towards the end of the 90’s I left this area to go to University to study stuff that I didn’t need to know, and by the time I had left I was married and kids followed shortly. Most of my gear was sold off, you know the score, and I was pretty resigned to not playing in a band anymore, because ‘life’. I still hung out on the scene sometimes, attended the odd jam to keep my ear in, but it was by then something I used to do rather than still did.

All this kind of changed when I started with Brian, I started to accumulate gear again, my interest in playing the guitar reached new levels of intensity (I was interested in the notes I played now rather than how many I could play) and when an opportunity to join a band again came up last year (the band I took my first tentative steps into country with) I welcomed it with open legs!

Being back on the circuit was a weird experience. Some of the places were unrecognisable from what they used to be, some were pretty well identical, and new venues in locations you would never expect were all over the place. Here is the thing that really became obvious to me though, many of the real venues (of those that are left, but that might be a subject for a more intense rant at a later date) were now owned by large corporations, chain bars, theme bars etc etc. I don’t know if those things are ‘a thing’ over the other side of the pond, but certainly here the local pub seems to have died somewhat. You walk into a venue these days and you’ll be greeted with the same place as the place you played in last week, just in a different town. Guaranteed that these places will have hard floors, very little in the way of seating/tables and there are mirrors everywhere, massive windows… Basically, it all looks like it’s fallen out of a plastic factory into a prefabricated pub construction machine.

Nett result for live music? You’ll sound crap no matter what gear you have. And believe me, in this band the instruments/toys/back line items on display are incredible. We have GREAT gear. But, the sound bounces off these surfaces and just accumulates everywhere and tumbles into itself and the high ends become shrill, the low end just disappears and even a small pub has a lot of overbearing natural reverb. And that’s just plain awful.

Now, I’m not stupid, I understand why these places have changed, well – why a lot of them have anyway. These big chain corporations exist to make money, and mostly they do. They appeal to a transitional customer base, so they have big flat screens all over the place showing live sports, hideous music blaring out and sell high powered small drinks that are designed to have a high turnover. But NONE of this relates to a live music pub. None of it relates to making the band sound good. None of this relates to encouraging the next generation of future rock stars, or old farts like me who just like making music with their buddies, to get out there and do it. A room doesn’t need to be specifically tuned, far from it, it just needs ‘stuff’ to soak up the reflections. Carpets. Curtains/blinds on the windows. Seating. Tables… and don’t get me started on ceiling height!

We have seen many an excited landlord tell us of their plans for refurbishment that means ripping out the carpets and ‘opening the place up’ and every time we hear it our hearts drop through the bottom of our shoes, out the door into a bottle someplace back in to the annals of history. We foolishly thought that when smoking in licenced premises was banned here in 2006 we would see more places embrace the soft floor model (as let’s face it, cigarette burn marks on carpets are disgusting) yet even more now you see the ‘wipe clean’ version appear everywhere. You see hard walls with glass front posters hung, you see endless wide open spaces with the odd stool dotted around and you know that unless the place gets packed with people who intend to stay until the end, you are going to sound painfully loud and harsh for a lot of that room.

So, here is what I would like to say from this particular soapbox. If you are a live music venue and pride yourself in being one, take note of what the bands that play there sound like and ask them what they think of the room acoustics. I can guarantee you that at least one of them (in the band I play in, it’s the bass player) who can tell you exactly what makes your room sound better or worse than the rest of the circuit. Take note of the sound of the band ALL around the room they are playing in. If they sound awesome when you are stood right in front of them but back by the bar it sounds like the guitar tone is splitting your ears apart, there is a problem. Go around to other venues in your area and listen to the bands you have in your venue sound like and think about what the differences are. You’ll be amazed what a few small, and relatively cheap, changes can make to the live music experience. It’s not hard to see why the rooms with the best sound attract the better bands and most importantly, the customers who are going to stay and drink the pumps dry.

I could list all of the places around here that sound amazing, all the ones that sound terrible and all the ones that have recently made a change for the better or the worse. I won’t, because I want to continue playing in them because let’s face it, I’m not in it for the glory or the chicks, I’m in it purely because I love the music we play and I think I play with one of the most naturally gifted bass players alive today. Why he’s playing in a band with a guy like me I’ll never know, but he’s ace. It’s just a shame that a lot of the places we play in you can’t really hear how ace he is.

I’m not one for blatant self-promotion, but if you read this, and you have a venue near you (that is in charge of their own destiny) that sounds great, or not so great, post this on their social media, even if one place puts something up to make the room sound better – and it literally could be something as small as curtains on windows on the back wall, then job done.

*and yes, the header picture of this piece is that bunch of old farts I mentioned above, including me, playing live in a GREAT sounding venue! 

Idiots guide – Distortion, overdrive and clipping.

… I’m on a learning curve, so we might as well carry on! As I said in my previous idiot's guide, that name firmly applies to me, so I’m researching subjects that I don’t know about, but as someone who has been playing for years should, and posting my findings in this blog. Hope that in reading this you will find it as interesting as I did when I was researching it. I’m going to use some visual metaphors in here that doesn't make much sense, but they have helped me understand what is happening much better.

What causes overdrive, distortion, gain? Well, the first thing we HAVE to get out the way is that those are actually buzzwords that don’t really mean anything other than a term we use to consolidate it in our heads, the true word to use in this is CLIPPING.

What?

Yes, clipping. Overdrive, distortion, fuzz, etc. comes from ‘clipping the signal’. But what does that actually mean? Clipping occurs, in real terms, when the audio signal amplitude exceeds the maximum voltage capability of the system it is in. Or, in real terms, when the wave is trying to get through a hole that it’s too big for. Does that make sense? A true sound wave, a pure one, is a sound wave that is a classic sine  – fully up and down movement moving at a certain speed. It is the way this wave moves that gives sound character, so if you listen to this – this is about as pure as it gets I suppose, this is a note produced by vibrating the signal at 440 times a second, or to name it, ‘Hertz’ (let’s not go to the 432hz thing, I might come to that in a later piece). 

So, when this signal is pure and it’s vibrating in an unrestricted way, you get a ‘clean tone’ (I’m not going to get into how different amps and guitars effect that tone, as this is a scratching of the surface piece).  In order to distort the signal, or overdrive it – or force it through the hole that it’s too big for, we ‘clip’ it. We take the top off, take the bottom off, usually take them both off. Gain is a misnomer, increasing gain actually means increasing volume within a circuit, but after it's been messed with, it increases clipping.

So, here is a basic ‘clean tone’ sine wave.

 

When we clip that signal, it will look something like this…

This occurs by amplifying the signal a lot and placing a limit on the wave, so it gets ‘clipped off’ before it hits its natural peak/trough and comes back round again, the demonstration above would probably be more in line with soft clipping, as the amplification isn’t too great and the wave is pretty well intact apart from the extremities.

We get more severe levels of clipping, by increasing the initial amplification and making the clip more angular. Like this…

 

I fully expect that the more scientific/mathematical among you are looking at those and thinking “That’s not right, it needs to be more etc. etc.” but I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, I’m just a guy who knows his way around photoshop and this is the easiest way to show it.

One thing we have to remember here is that clipping is not the same as compression of limiting. We are not clipping the top and bottom of the wave with compression and limiting, we are just reducing the depth of the wave and bringing it more in line with the other waves, so the dynamics will be reduced but the shape of the wave will be retained.

The real joy of clipping comes with, as you may expect, adding in EQ (putting it before or after the clipping), low or high pass filters, or making the clipping asymmetrical and the millions of other things you can do to it… If you think about the classic OD circuits and how they change the tone as well as clip it, you start to teeter closer to the edge of the rabbit hole that is designing effects pedals.

The main thing that surprised me when I started to learn about clipping the signal is that it’s not how you would expect, as when you get to different reactions and requirements, you request the signal be clipped in different ways. For example, the classic ‘tube overdrive pedal’ works best when hitting an already clipping amp, the process aligns up and the result is truly glorious. For this reason, our Clarksdale – with the inherent EQ hump – will just accentuate what is already happening – with soft clipping. A distortion pedal, like the Dracarys, is treating the process completely differently – mostly hard clipping - needs a cleaner platform to work.

As a final point, analog clipping is fantastic, digital clipping currently is just plain awful… however, alot digital overdrive/distortion will replicate the characteristics and traits of analog clipping so progress is there and it's coming...

Idiots Guide - Amp Rectifiers, tube or solid state?

...let me introduce myself, my name is Jason and I'm a gear idiot.

Now. Having said that, I have been playing the guitar for WELL over 30 years, but I've always been more concerned with trying to play this virtuoso piece or if I can perfect the art of using the whammy bar to drop a note by a perfect 5th rather than thinking about why one amp sounds different than another, I'm guessing that many other players out there are like me as well, so following on from the piece I did about standby switches last year, I'm going to try to educate myself on these things, write them down, and hope that you guys join me on the learning journey as well. I can't guarantee that this is going to be 100% unbiased as I'm considering it all out loud in a real world situation from an uneducated perspective, but here goes, hopefully, it all makes sense...

One of the things that has often comes up, especially in the more expensive amps, is that having a tube rectifier is a good thing (I when I started reading about this I couldn't even begin to understand why some amps even have an option for both) - but, I've always just accepted that, but to be fair I have no idea what one is. So, I've asked people, Google, the dog, and my local milkman and here is the answer. A rectifier converts the power coming in from the wall from AC to DC. Well, that's that answered then. Shall we go jam and have a beer? 

Of course, we can't, we have to ascertain the differences between different rectifiers, how different tubes make it sound different, why some amp builders insist that solid state is best - case in point - which was part of the first thing I read when looking at this, Mr Mike Soldano:

"In my opinion, all amps should have solid state rectifiers. I don’t believe there are any really good rectifier tubes on today’s market and, even if there were, why use them? The technology is obsolete; they are horribly inefficient, and far more expensive and troublesome to build into an amp. These tubes, no matter how good, will routinely need replacing, adding to your maintenance expenses. Besides that, tube rectifiers kill the headroom of an amplifier. If you want that spongy, vintage sound, there are other ways to do it. I have successfully designed and built amps that have replicated that soggy bottom, vintage tube rectifier sound using solid state rectifiers and various circuit modifications."

This melted my head a little to start off with because I always thought that tube was best when it comes to tone. So, trying to ascertain why, I read further and talked to the dog some more.

I found that the beauty of the tube rectifier, which in real terms can also be the beast of it, is SAG. And yes, there's that word again. Starting to think it's a nonexistent word invented by guitary types to describe something that the literary genius of before could not describe. So we just call it SAG. Now, SAG occurs when the rectifier is hit with a request for massive amounts of current, usually if it's working really hard. Almost like my understanding of the SAG that happens when you are at high gain and you slightly palm mute, everything goes crunchy and saggy, because the low end is requesting a HUGE amount of power and something has to give. In my head, this is a very good thing, but also it can be a bad thing as well, because if the power you are getting from the wall is under par, you will achieve SAG quicker... if the tube is on it's way out, you will achieve SAG quicker. So, once again (as with ANY discussion with tube amps), consistency is the key. Trouble is, most of us prefer the sound so much we are prepared to run this risk. The effects of SAG on a rectifier is that there is a slight delay, literally milliseconds in the response which then goes on to make the note bloom (as the rectifier catches up) which at the same time evens out the high end. Pretty certain most of us players will read a line like that, gently nod and maybe give a little smile, as that is ALWAYS a good thing. Then you get into differing types of tubes that force this behavior to make it happen quicker (for example, a 5Y3 is quicker than a GZ34), you start to understand that part of the rectifiers character and how it is dealt with plays a massive part in amps, and also plays a massive part many of guitar pedals trying to rectify that sound... Let's face it, if you are anything like me as you were reading that last paragraph you probably thought at some point about a decent compressor and a tube screamer!

Let's look at the other end of the scale now. The Solid State rectifier. These are made from silicon and do the same thing as the tube version, just extremely consistently. In my head, my first reaction to that is "YAY, consistency, GREAT" but then I remember those gigs I've played where my amp has never sounded bad because of the rectifier, just the times when it has sounded glorious. You know the ones I mean, the ones where something happens somewhere and for some reason, everything is compressing at the right time, the right amount, at the right volume, the notes are blooming, harmonics are leaping out and just everything else... I just wish it would happen more often. I suppose the challenge the builders of the future have it to make that happen, all the time, at all volumes.

I asked Brian why he opted for a tube rectifier in his amp designs, his answer was simple:

"To rectifier has a little bit more natural compression, and notes that are distorted sometimes feels more pronounced. Since this amp is fairly clean it just feels better with the tube. Solid-state will be much stiffer feeling"

So, we are back with the whole consistency feel and that "X Factor" thing of things magically happening under your fingers, why is it that when we talk about tube amps, we always come back to that? Playing the guitar is fundamentally an organic experience, for most of us anyway, we tend to dig that whole signal chain reaction that comes from a great player, great guitar, great cables, great pedals, great amp, great speakers. There is something delightful when those things work together to get that point, many many players rely on the inconsistencies of tube amps to get their tone and to keep them on their toes... yet many companies provide their amps with either both, or just SS. Why? I'm guessing that in amps where the gain response (clipping) is everything and the signal is being carefully balanced across gain stages, you will want the same thing, day in and day out and you don't want your amp to one minute to have a much more saggy low end appearing at random times, because with a lot of natural clipping happening, it would legitimately change the entire personality of the amp. Notable amps that have an SS (or both) rectifier: Soldano SLO100, Many Marshall Plexi's, Blackface Twin reverbs... the list is extensive!

 

"$199 pedals", margins, production costs, R&D, and ‘Made in the USA'

As you might expect, one of the things we hear a lot from some people is “How can you charge $200 for a pedal that I can buy the parts for, for less than $50, and make it myself?”

Right, let’s get comfy and pick this apart piece by piece. I’ll do my best to remain objective and not end up in a socio political rant about ethics, but you know, if you poke the bear sometimes you get bitten! But, I’ll try to keep my muzzle on and remain professional! lololz.

Let’s take the Thirty Something. A pedal that we sell for $239 USD. The first thing you have to remember is that Brian didn’t wake up one day and have it all mapped inside his head, he didn’t just do a “Let It Be” and have it ready from a dream. I kid you not that Brian took almost 3 years to design that circuit, it went through more prototypes than any other Wampler I know of (and I’m pretty certain I’m up to speed on this stuff), it was tweaked, changed, restarted, thrown in the bin so many times I actually stopped asking about it. When it was finally ready I remember Brian saying “I’m still not 100% happy with it, but I just can’t see how I can make it any closer”. That being said, when it arrived in Wildling territory and I plugged it in, I was staggered how it reacted and how it felt. I still think it remains the benchmark in AIAB pedals, it does the job perfectly. And I was brought up playing Edge, Queen, The Beatles and Hank Marvin songs… so, I’m kinda fussy with VOX tones.

Thinking about that, and thinking about how Brian is considered in his field, can you begin to imagine how much investment that is? To import a design engineer and have them work at something on and off for 3 years would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, I can’t comprehend how much it would be, but just think about that minute, that is a lot of R&D work, and you know, with a large family to support and employees to pay, that kind of work doesn’t pass unnoticed by the company accountant. R&D aside, then you have to imagine that once again, the designs of everything else doesn’t appear out of thin air, the pedal logo needs designing, the box art, the manual, the marketing, the demo videos, the promo shots… it’s actually quite ridiculous when you think about it, costs a bloody fortune.

Here is a picture I took for the marketing for the release of the Thirty Something. I am very lucky that I live near Manson's Guitar Shop and have a great relationship with them (they stock us). I go in, take over a corner of the shop, use their stock guitars as backing and then spend a long time photoshopping the picture to make it look like this. It all adds up! 

Now, we get to parts. Brian is RIDICOUSLY fussy about parts. He will only use parts that fulfil his requirements, and there was a stage at one point in time when we were ditching 2/3rds of a certain part because they didn’t come up to scratch - mere mortals like me can’t hear the difference, but let’s face it, I’m not Brian Wampler, his ears are better than mine and I expect most of yours as well, so you have to budget that as well.

So, let’s get back to the meat of this. You will find websites all over the internet that ‘kindly’ reverse every pedal ever made and post the schematic for all to plagiarise, errmmm, I mean “study". So, once we’ve spent ages designing and marketing a pedal and released it, someone can then probably go to their favorite online parts store and order the parts, an enclosure and get pretty close to how the original is. I say pretty close, because I can guarantee that the components won’t be to the spec Brian demands, it won’t be laid out as well and let’s face it, I expect the basic soldering won’t be that good. We stand by our 5 year guarantee, I bet the places the parts are bought from don’t! 

Let’s now look at this from another angle. And throughout this, I’m not going to mention any prices, because people will jump on it, but just think about where we are and what we are doing in this, and where you can buy it. We are not a retailer. We do not sell to the general public (we do offer direct sales through our site, but they account for next to nothing in term of units moved compared to our international sales team). We are a manufacturer. We manufacture a product, and then sell it to people who sell it through their own stores. Sometimes we sell it to a distributor who then sells it to a dealer… taking local and international taxes, shipping, the price goes up. Then I must mention the 5 year guarantee again… So, if you want to try a product in store, have that store stay open to offer you a service, you see where we, and everyone else, is coming from. Having said that, some pedals are overpriced for what they are. I’m not going to mention anything or anyone specifically here, but there are pedals out there that are basic reworked clones, with minimal R&D, with a crappy box, labelled with one of those crappy Embosser Label Maker gun things that are for sale direct from manufacturers that are silly prices, but that’s their conscience, not ours! 

Made in USA. What does that mean? You may have noticed we’ve shifted from Made in USA to Built in USA. Why I hear you ask? (and to be fair, it’s another question we get asked a lot at the moment.) Well, to be able to say “Made in USA” with complete honesty means that every component is made in the USA, and as far as I know (and I like to think I’m up to speed) most parts are impossible to source, let alone in the numbers we need them, from the USA. So, we source parts – as does EVERYONE else, from around the world - we just wear that information on our sleeves. The same burden of consistency and quality is applied, and we use only the very best. I would say that if a pedal is sourced from USA components (if it was actually possible) you’d be looking at a pedal that is at least 3 or 4 times the price, and you can imagine how many of them we’d sell! (worth noting that technically, it’s illegal for any pedal company to say “Made in the USA” due to the reasons above. We just found this out recently and changed the wording to be in accordance with US law).

When you think about a $199.97 pedal (also: inflation. www.usinflationcalculator.com a pedal that costs $199 today would have sold for $107 in 1990. Ever since 2007, we’ve had a main price of about $199 unless it’s a deluxe pedal. Accounting for inflation, that pedal SHOULD cost $235.10 in 2017, yet we’ve never raised that 199 price), remove the dealer margin, shipping, taxes and everything else (I’m not going to even go to how we manage to sell our stuff for virtually the same price all over the world, give or take $30 or so dollars) then start to think about production costs, there isn’t a lot of room to think about R&D and then the guarantee period. Now do the same with a pedal that is $149, $129 or $99 - think about how much it costs to build and how many compromises have to be made in those price reductions – kinda makes you wonder doesn’t it. Strip it back, work it out, and then you think about the Built in USA (as our stuff is) you’ll see that not only are we bringing you a quality USA product, but paying quality USA salary for the guys who design, build, test, market, sell and repair (which isn’t very often thankfully) our stuff… Then look at the guys who will sell you a clone of a pedal that is still in production for $50. Do you think that will give you the same pedal? Do you think that will encourage companies like us to continue to make quality products that will inspire you to sound the best you can do?