Talking about gear

Talking about gear (79)

Gear Reviewers. A little research will cut your BS output by up to 100%! Confirmed!

Regular readers of this blog… I’ve been a good boy in recent times with almost no ranting, with little or no intention of deliberately highlighting things that will upset people… I know, quite unlike me. Forgive me, loyal readers of thine blog, if it has become boring.

Having said that, you might want to get the popcorn out. I’m not going to descend into some epic rant here because I believe in providing the evidence for you to make your own mind up - but I am also going to be cross-referencing stuff… So, get comfy, as to be able to fully understand what I’m saying you’re in for the full monty with reading this blog, two other pieces and watching a review of a competitor’s pedal. You might need to listen to a podcast as well (although to make it easier, I’ve transcribed what Brian and Blake said at the bottom).

Now, I hear you ask… what is this all about? Well, you could say I watched a video recently that pissed me right off. You could say that, and you’d be quite right. The video in question was full of such outrageous comments and statements that I feel the person who said it should have known better. Much better. Brian commented about it on the podcast (he basically stated his disbelief at what was said) and was then contacted by the reviewer in question who completely failed to understand why we, as pedal builders, would be upset by it. With this in mind, I’ve taken it upon myself to lay the facts out clearly.

Before I go further, I need to highlight a couple of things. I need for you to understand what a gear influencer is. It’s highlighted fully here. It talks about how they get paid (if they do), who pays them and goes on to explain what the difference is between a demo artist and a reviewer. If you still have the will to live after that one, read this one – it’s all about production techniques and why pedals cost as much as they do when a top-level USA based company produces them. 

The person that got this rant going is a gear reviewer. He did not receive any payment for the video, he bought the pedal himself, so it was an honest one from that perspective. He was under no obligation to paint the pedal in any light other than his own. However, regardless of that, I feel that when you are going to put yourself out there to do this, you need to be careful in what you are saying because the casual observer can take what is said and draw the wrong conclusions.

I need to make a statement now before I carry on… so here it is. I am completely and utterly bored of people talking the purest horseshit imaginable about production techniques and parts used, and then basing the value of the product on their misunderstanding of how all this actually works.

There. I said it. It’s out of the way… So, in order to make my point, I’m going to have to break some of this video right down, line by line, and expose just how dangerous saying this stuff is. I say these kinds of comments are dangerous because it gives an unfair perception to the customers about the value of pedals, and what goes into them to bring them to market. To put it simply, it’s dangerous because it’s total crap. 

During this video, in particular from the 6-minute mark onwards, he’s carelessly throwing around the price of things. “$1.50 for the power jack”, “$1.50 for the input and output jacks….” He even goes as far as saying “Parts wise, there is nothing to validate the cost of this $230 pedal.” 

The devil is in the details.

OK, let’s rip this little section apart a little. First of all, his estimation of the cost of parts is so far wrong you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve spoken to Josh Scott and Robert Keeley, looked at our own price/rate (who I’m pretty certain you can agree to represent a fair panel of this industry), and the average cost of an input/output jack is no-where near as expensive as that in the numbers we buy them in. One of those companies (based on the 2017 figures) had a failure rate of just over 0% (on 21K+ pedals produced during that period). Another had a failure rate of just over 0% (based on 29K+ pedals made) and the other had a failure rate of just over 0% (based on a total output of 35K+). Of all the information I could gather, the only issues happened were due to human error in the production process. So, tell me again how a more expensive jack from Switchcraft would increase the value of the pedal to the customer? You have to admit, a combined failure rate of literally just over 0% based on 85K+ units really is quite remarkable. 

Regarding pricing of parts, take a look at these.

One of them is $0.10, and the other is $2.26 (prices right at the time of writing, they are subject to change). Just for complete transparency - here are the places I am getting these pictures and prices from.

Here is the $0.10 part.

Here is the $2.26 part.

Although the page clearly states that these images are for illustration purposes only, I can assure you if you put the two different parts in a pedal and pointed to them with a screwdriver on a YouTube video you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Also, I’m not saying that Josh uses either one of these parts in his pedals, I’m just showing what a pointless exercise this all was... One of these parts is 2260% more expensive than the other. So, what is the point of looking at them in a pedal and passing comment on their value to the product, or in fact, their literal fiscal value at all?

I could go on and rip the rest of it apart, but it would just descend into me ranting, and I’m really trying not to, so here are the direct quotes that really annoyed me.

8:11 “I think honestly though; this pedal should be 130 – 150 dollars tops.”

8:18 “Even though it sounds good, I betcha it would sound better with some better parts.”

8:27 “Looking at these parts these are about the same quality components you get in a BOSS pedal so, it’s not like you are going to go down a lot in quality when you go to BOSS, it looks like they were put together in the same way.”

Having read what I say in the original piece about production costs, R&D, guarantee, (and let’s also factor in that Andy Timmons is paid a commission on each unit sold), how the hell can someone ascertain the cost of a pedal by a cursory look at the circuit board in that way? How does this person then go on to KNOW what would make it sound better? And most importantly… how are they able to compare it to a pedal by another company – especially when the only thing that compares the two companies is that they both make guitar pedals… the processes and intentions are extremely different between the two.

I’m having a hard time in keeping this all on point, so I’m going to stop now… Just remember what I said in the other piece about costs associated with making a pedal in the USA and think about comparing a pedal like this one to a boss pedal and only using your eyes to make that comparison. Don’t think about the location of the manufacturer. Don’t think about a limited lifetime warranty (which is what JHS offers to a pedal bought in the USA). Don’t think about artist commission. Don’t think about anything at all. Just look at the pedal guts and openly make uneducated and outrageous bullshit assumptions about them, and then broadcast them to 128k subscribers.

I will, at this point, acknowledge that he does say "We know we are not paying for parts when we are buying pedals - that's a wrong road mentally and you'll upset yourself. it's kinda like when you go for breakfast and you think about how much eggs and bacon cost"... but if that's the case, why go on to say all the other crap?

I’d like to thank Robert and Josh for their openness in discussing the cost of parts and their failure rates so frankly with a competitor. Just goes to show what a wonderful relationship we have in our little corner of the industry, and also explains why we kinda stick up for each other.

 

Transcription of Blake and Brian's podcast conversation - original here (Episode 193, from 45:00).

Brian: “This particular You Tuber had a JHS pedals… he liked the sound of it, and he opened it up, and he started talking about how he didn’t feel it was valuable enough because it had surface mount parts and look at this, you know, the way this is done, I’m not a big fan of that, you know, I don’t like these kinds of…”

Blake: “For real?”

Brian: “And, I’m sitting here, like, getting…”

Blake: “Not the surface mount thing again?!”

Brian: “YES! And I’m sitting here… And this is the guy with 200k subscribers or something like that. And I know the guy… super nice guy… and I thought about it and should I and just be like “Dude, why didn’t you do three minutes of research – we have an entire blog about this discussion. Literally, you type in surface mount v. through hole and it like pops up. It takes like, no research. We did it for you.”

Blake: “Right”

Brian: “And he used to have music stores! You know how this works! There are profit layers… From distributors to retailers etc etc. And that’s the only way you can sell it around the world. You are not going to make a pedal in your garage and sell it in 500 stores. It’s just not going to happen.”

Blake: “It’s a different thing and we’ve beat that horse to death”

Brian: “Yeah, and I don’t want to hit that again – I guess… It was just a disappointment. To see one of my favourite YouTube channels not do due diligence. And research it a bit more thoroughly.”

 

For the sake of balance, here was the response to Brian's original comments, in a blog piece. I note how the real issues were not addressed, hence this blog being written.

 

 

 

Evolution of the "Perfect" Tone

We’re all in this together, so when I address some of the scenarios in this blog, try keeping a tally as to how many you can identify with and share similar concepts or stories of your chase for tone in the comments.
 
The “perfect” tone is something I’ve chased my entire guitar-playing life. Early on when I first picked up the instrument, it was a combination of what I could afford (more like what I could beg my parents for and attempt to work off to “pay them” in labor to get) and try to emulate my heroes. I started playing guitar because of my love of Eric Clapton’s clean tone on the “Riding with the King” album he did with B.B. King, along with the tone I heard on the song “Wake Up” from the Matrix soundtrack (Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine). I loved the way they made their guitar seem as if it was conveying emotion, so much so I could almost feel those notes in my heart every time I listened. So, I convinced my parents to let me enroll in a guitar class my freshman year in high school, and they bought me an Ovation Applause acoustic-electric they found at a local shop for maybe two hundred bucks. It wasn’t glorious, but man did I cut my teeth (and my fingers) on it. It wasn’t about tone at that point; it was just learning and “writing songs” (3 barre chords and melodramatic teenage angst lyrics for days). Being that I loved Eric Clapton, my dream guitar at the time was a Strat. Mom and Dad found a Wine Red 2000 MIM Strat at the shop I was taking lessons at, and I drooled over it every single time we would walk in the shop. I was very fortunate to wake up Christmas morning and see that wine red strat and a small 10-watt Fender amp (can’t even remember what model). All I know is it was solid state and at the time had the dreamiest reverb I had ever heard. It was my “perfect” tone at 15.
 
Fast-forward about two years, and I’m in my first band. We were an alt-rock/pop-punk band that was aiming for an Incubus meets Sum 41 amalgamation. My music choices changed due to the environment I was in and the people I was surrounded with, so I migrated from wanting a classic strat clean tone to more dirt. It started off with a friend selling his Fender Stage 160 (because we wanted to be LOUD), and the start of my pedal addiction. I was working after school and all summer, so I saved up to buy a Danelectro Fabtone…. yea. I proceeded to crank the gain and wail. Little did I know that it sounded like a wall of angry bees swarming wherever we played (are the Fabtone and the Metal Zone distant cousins?). As I said before, Incubus and Mike Einziger were my new tone obsessions, so I stupidly sold off my MIM strat to fund an off-brand PRS copy that was at that local music store I mentioned. It was a fight to play, and it was more about looks than functionality and tone. I finally wised up a few months later, worked my tail off and sold off all of my excess gear and bought an American HSS strat  (sienna sunburst, maple board), and took my graduation money and working the summer after and got a Marshall AVT150. At the time, THAT was my perfect tone for what I was looking aiming to achieve. (Can you see a recurring theme here?)
 
In college, I was in another band that was into much heavier music, and once again my music tastes changed. All of my guitar heroes at the time were playing PRS’s, and the shop that was close to my apartment had a used Custom 22 with bird inlays in ruby red that I fell in love with. Admittedly I stretched myself way too thin and put it on layaway, sold the American Strat to a friend (who ended up putting stickers all over it and destroyed it), and got my PRS. The PRS and my AVT150 were my main setup for a few years, again...perfect tone at the time. My wife and I started dating “officially” when I was in college (though we dated in high school too, I was just too stupid to realize how amazing she was and broke it off to go move to the big city, etc.). She's always been into country music, which I loathed for some unknown reason. I grew up on listening to country music, but at the time it wasn’t in my wheelhouse, and I couldn’t stand it. Over the course of our dating my disdain for country music slowly melted away, and eventually, my mom told me about Brad Paisley, who was just about to release his Time Well Wasted album. That started me down another path…
 
Fast-forward to about a year later, and I’m borrowing my Dad’s Tele and Hot Rod Deluxe, and grabbed a Paisley Drive and that was the PERFECT TONE! I got heavily into Brad Paisley and discovered Brent Mason again now that I was older and able to appreciate his style, and all of the sudden the PRS and Marshall weren’t cutting it anymore. My graduation present (which has always been a major deal for our family) was a Crook Custom Telecaster. My dad was playing at the time as well, so we both ordered one (this is 2006, prices were a bit more lenient then). We took a road trip up to meet Bill and pick up our guitars, and to this day was one of my greatest memories getting to spend that time with him. I was working full time and traded in my Hot Rod Deluxe and PRS, and grabbed a Dr. Z RX Jr. It was a great clean platform, and it fit the bill NEARLY perfectly. I wanted the Brad Paisley tone, but with a personal touch. This was when I dove head first heavily into pedals, realizing they were a quick way of changing your overall sound at a relatively inexpensive price compared to an amp or guitar. I’ve gone through a few hundred pedals since then, slowly acquired some great amps, and still fervently chase the tone as much as I possibly can. In the end though, I still just sound like me now, and I accept that.
 
So, what is the whole point of this recurrent theme of finding the perfect tone? Essentially, finding the “perfect” tone is an evolutionary process, and it grows easier to understand as you gain more experience. In the beginning, you aim for what your heroes have, and what you can afford. As you gain knowledge of the instrument and tone, you realize that your tastes evolve as you do, and it molds into finding your sound, drawing from all the past experiences and creating a style that’s unique to you. We’ve all said the famous saying of “my board is done.” No, it isn’t, but it’s nice to think for a brief moment in time that satisfaction is obtained. Again, this might not apply to everyone, but I know quite a few that are right there with me. The chase for tone is a never-ending one because what’s perfect now might not be right for where you are later down the road. Embrace it and enjoy the chase!

The road to NAMM

Winter NAMM is right around the corner, and with the weeks leading up to it come the crazy of preparations to setup the booth, layout the board and get any marketing materials (shirts, stickers, etc) together. One of the biggest things that NAMM is known for is the plethora of new gear that is showcased by most every company. Some designs are reworkings and updated versions of existing products, brand new designs, or something completely out of the ordinary designed to make a huge impact on the patrons and tone chasers who keep up with NAMM news down to the wire.

Herein lies the issue with presenting at NAMM: what’s the best practice in regard to showcasing new products? In years past our brand-new pedals were given first looks on our social media platforms, either from visitors to the booth snapping a photo, us uploading a sneak peak, or your favorite YouTube or gear channel doing a quick video where someone showcases what we’ve got new. This year is a bit different for us though, because our ideals have shifted a bit with what we’re aiming for. NAMM is a stellar event, but it’s also a tidal wave of new information that overtakes all gear outlets for the days leading up to it, during it, and for weeks to come after it. We’ve got several new designs that we’re extremely proud to have ready, but the question comes in as to whether they’ll get lost in the shuffle of new stuff? Each product Brian and our team has worked on has many hours invested, tone-wise along with aesthetics, marketing plans, and the usual release details that often go unnoticed by most people when we release something new. Are we doing a disservice to ourselves showing our whole hand starting out? 

So, our question comes down to this: Despite the designs being done for upwards of 5 new pedals, what do we show at NAMM? Do you go full-blast and hit everyone with all of the information at once, or take a select few and really hammer them home before introducing more? We’ve seen some companies showcasing their NAMM releases already, with the same idea applying of getting ahead of that tidal wave of information and making sure their product is visible and not lost in the mix. We follow a fairly punctual release schedule, so if a design isn’t mentioned at NAMM then it’s a pretty sure bet it will be following suit in a timely manner. This gives us time to prepare, get demos together and the pedals ready to ship to dealers without the tease…or is teasing part of the fun of it?

What do you think? Would you rather know in advance what’s coming up to prepare your wallet and board, or is it like knowing what you’re getting for Christmas, where the magic of the surprise isn’t there? In the end we want happy customers, so we’re curious to know what you personally think and would like to see?

The cost of tone-chasing

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” --Mark Twain
 
I love the quote above because I’ve found it’s true in most cases when it comes to musical experiences and gear. There are bands I saw in concert that I'd never get to see again, and there were guitars/pedals/amps that I have been able to snag over the years for an insane price that I lucked into. Still to this day I’m glad I decided to take a risk on it. On the flip side, I’ve been burned more times than I can count because I made a bad judgment call and either had to backpedal because I spent too much too quickly, or bought something thinking I had a deal and it ended up being a loss (time and money). But, it’s hard to beat the trusted wisdom learned from hands-on experience. For me, I’ve always learned the hard way with everything, including gear. So, the question comes down to the chase for tone, and what’s the ultimate end goal? Is there some grand, elaborate dream setup that we’re all collectively chasing on an individual level, or is it more than that? I’ll refer to my own experiences with this, hoping that some will identify with it or hopefully use it as an example of “Well at least I’m not THAT bad.”
 
My GAS and the lust to for chasing tone started out fairly casually at 16, two years after I started playing guitar. I originally wanted to sound like Eric Clapton when I started playing, but in my freshman year of high school, my cousin (who I rode to school with) introduced me to Incubus. I was hooked, and the chase was on. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Mike Einziger’s pedalboard, you’ll notice that he doesn’t shy away from using a multitude of tools at his disposal. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I started out with the Ibanez Tone-Lok pedals for phaser, flanger and a couple of other things I don’t recall, and a Danelectro Fab Tone. Those suited me for a while, and I slowly added some more pedals or subbed some out as we went along. The Metal Zone was soon on there, and I thought it kicked ass… Regardless, my intentions were pure, and my focus was more on learning and playing rather than effects. 
 
Later in high school, I developed a love of the sound of Marshall amps, and my graduation present was a Marshall AVT150 and a 1960A 4x12” cab. I was over the moon, and shelved most of my pedals for the sake of using the amp gain (which was sorely needed). I used that rig through college in various bands, and still focused on playing mainly more than tone chasing… mainly I’d say because I didn’t have any money to chase with. I would dream of owning various things, but again it was what felt like a faraway pipe dream. I eventually moved back home after college while working to save up, also was dating my high school sweetheart and planning a life together. I was working and contributing to the house, but I still had more money that I knew what to do with. That’s really where it TRULY started. During all of this time I had been on dialysis, so I had 4 hours, every other day to just sit. Trust me when I say you can only watch but so many movies, TV shows and listening to music so much before it gets old. Now multiply those 4 hours every other day times 24 years…you get my point. I wasn’t able to use my left arm, so the guitar wasn’t an option. Internet forums became my escape, places like TDPRI and TheGearPage, Facebook, etc. It was in these places that I started cutting my teeth on better gear, reading and absorbing and my curiosity growing every day. That’s what started my path down the rabbit hole.
 
I started off small, with my very first “boutique” pedal being a Keeley-modded Boss TR-2 tremolo. I fell in love with it and realized that maybe there were better sounding options than I had known about before. My second boutique pedal was a Lovepedal Kalamazoo, also another pedal that sounded phenomenal and was outside of the run-of-the-mill stuff available at my local Guitar Center or Sam Ash. My third boutique pedal pushed me over the edge completely, and that was the Paisley Drive, from Wampler Pedals. I was on a HUGE Brad Paisley kick at the time (see previous blogs), and that was the exact sound I was looking for going through my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. It was so good in fact that I sold my AVT150 to fund more pedals. Next up were the Pinnacle and the Ego Compressor, followed by the Analog Echo. The cycle continued until I had a board full of boutique pedals, lusting for more and needing a bigger board. Looking back, I had time to kill because my wife (newly married) was working 12-hour shifts at the hospital every other weekend, and I was bored and loved experiencing new sounds.
 
Since that time, I’ve been chasing tone, obscenely. There was a period from 2012-2014 that I’m particularly not proud of, where I was buying and selling and flipping pedals faster than I could keep track of. It gained me a TON of experience and knowledge in so many ways, but it took a toll on the wallet. As time has gone on, I’ve tried to reign it in some, but GAS always rears it’s ugly head when new stuff comes out. It’s just so easy to go browse Reverb.com and look at gear, and that “make an offer” button is going to be the death of me. I’ve made crazy low-ball offers before expecting to immediately be turned down, and the seller turns around and accepts my offer. I’ve also sold stuff for less than I wanted to to get a quick sale. I’ve found in general with Reverb that if you want to sell fast, of course, you want to sell cheap. I refuse to add up how much money I could have potentially gotten due to not holding out for a better offer because GAS had taken its tolls and made me lust for another piece of gear.
 
To summarize, Gear Acquisition Syndrome truly is a thing, and it’s the excitement of the purchase, the unknown, dreaming about the tones that could or could not be unlocked from the new piece of gear. But all of those things don’t just cost money. I’ve spent a LOT of wasted time browsing for gear, watching YouTube videos for gear I lusted for, etc. I’ve recently had to put the phone down because I noticed I would be in a restaurant or at a holiday party or kid’s birthday party and browsing for gear or talking on forums or Facebook or Instagram instead of having face-to-face interactions. 
 
My main goal with this blog is that I hope someone else out there will identify with my thought processes or path on the pursuit of tone, and they don’t get to the point where I was with taking financial risks and neglecting the important things in life. At the same time, there are experiences that I have had and things I’ve tried that I had only dreamt of. The key is BALANCE. It took me quite a long time to find mine, but I at least feel like I’m in the ballpark.
 
 

Demo Artists v Reviewers

I got in a bit of trouble last week with some people - purely because I encouraged a mass troll of a troll. A lot of people thought it was the wrong thing to do, but in my defence, the guy who was trolling us said something so silly I just couldn’t help it. My bad, I should have known better. This guy was dropping one liners on demo videos saying things like “*insert demo artist name here* will endorse anything that is put in front of him”. Once I’d got over the incredulity of such a ridiculous statement, and having discussed it with Brian and Alex (to be fair, we often have discussions about statements online that are plainly ridiculous and wonder what people are thinking when they say them), I came to the conclusion that there are people out there that don’t appear to have a clue what the difference is between the two. So, I thought I’d lay it out in front of you – I will stick with the pedals as it’s all slightly weird, but this will apply to all aspects of the MI industry…

Demo Artists
These are the guys that receive some kind of payment to produce a demonstration of a product. Often paid for (in one way or another) by the company that makes the pedal themselves (or by their distributor) and it’s a fantastic way of getting the pedal out there quickly into the ears and eyes (and then hopefully the hands) of the customer. Now, there are a lot of people out there that want to do this so the competition is fierce. When you look at the demo’s that are turned out by people such as Ola EnglundBrett Kingman or Tom Quayle, not only are you seeing the product, but you are seeing expert levels (with pro-level gear) of photography, videography, audio recording, composition and decades of crafting their playing talent. These are not some chancer with an iPhone 4S and a nice guitar who knows a few riffs, these are people that do this as part of their wider job, therefore they receive payment (and this element is not standardised, some people cost a LOT of money compared to others).

In order for them to maintain our business, as the manufacturer looking to get the product into the customer’s hands, it is well worth their effort to make the pedal look and sound as good as possible. Let’s face it, if a demo artist comes onboard with us and their first attempt is utter crap, they won’t get anything else from us, ever again. So, they HAVE to make it sound good for our sake, but most importantly, for their own.

This is where it becomes an art form. I’ve seen countless videos of Brett Kingman where he has straight up said that “it’s a great pedal, if you like that kind of thing” which can be translated to be saying “It’s not for me”… but, he does everything he does to make it sound the best he can in the video. What does that mean? Well – on a personal level, it makes me trust him, I don’t want to sound like him but I know if I listen to his demos, he makes it pretty clear what it can and can’t do, and I know what it will sound like in most situations. Brett has been doing this for a LONG time, he was the first demo artist I dealt with when I started with Brian in 2010 and he’d been going for a good few years then. It’s safe to say that for me, Brett remains the benchmark in terms of professionalism, honesty and dignity in this business. You know what you are going to get, not only from the demo but also from the unit if you buy it.

Reviewers
I think this is where people get confused, as this is where opinions come into play, and as a manufacturer, it’s a bloody nightmare and has legitimately caused me sleepless nights in the past. A great example of people who review pedals who walk this very fine line are Henning Pauly and Dan and Mick on That Pedal Show. Although, to be fair on the both of them, they aren’t really reviewers, they just do what they do but in this industry, they are the closest I can get.

They are both extremely experienced in their appreciation of music and the weapons that are waged war on to make it, but they have both built their channels based on “I’m not going to bullshit you”. So much so, there are times when I’ve watched them both with our pedals and my heart has sunk out the bottom of my shoes, out the front door, into the gutter and then washed out to sea. BUT… they are both ridiculously popular, so we listen to them, and we learn from them. I, and we, have learned very valuable lessons from their videos that have been invaluable to us as a company in the past. Why? Because they approach it differently, Dan and Mick are the excitable tone chasers that know what they like and everything in their show is done to their liking – so, if they like your pedal, you’re going to sell a shitload, if they don’t… Well, some you win and some you don’t. Henning is a no-nonsense kind of guy that says it like it is, you can’t hide ANYTHING when you send a product to Henning, if he thinks something is stupid, he will say so, and is probably right to do so. Probably. Do they demo? Do they review? It’s hard to gauge, but I think they both kinda review, but not in the way you would expect.

Magazine Reviews
I’m not going to get too far into this one as it can get political, but you know, have you noticed how quite often the companies with the biggest adverts in a magazine quite often have the most products reviewed in that issue? ANYWAY... moving swiftly on...

And, in conclusion…
What are the differences? Well, a demo artist is paid to make a pedal look and sound bloody brilliant – it’s an advert. S/He is paid to advertise the product, by playing it, and for it to be launched either to their own following or you use it to communicate to your own. So, it’s all about reach and getting it into newsfeeds and incite that condition known as G.A.S.. A reviewer is someone that will be more open and honest and give you their opinion on it. Which should you rely on and trust more? The answer, obviously, is both and neither at the same time. What you should do though is not take either of them as gospel and watch and read as much as you can about any given piece of gear and then base your decision purely on how it makes you sound, when you play it, with your own gear.

The Gauntlet has been thrown down

As you may (but you probably may not) know, I use somewhat of a complicated pedal board for the band I play in. We are just a pub band that generally play to a couple of hundred people, with at least 50% of those are generally too drunk to care about what they are hearing. But still, every gig I walk into the venue with literally thousands of pounds of gear. I know a lot of people will say “why bother”, but I do it because it makes me happy and I want to have great tone. So, let’s nip that one in the bud before we get started!

However, an incident at a gig a couple of months ago has made me relook at a couple of items on my board and made me realise I bought a lot of my gear because it’s considered to be the industry standard and it was expected to have that piece of gear if I wanted the feature set. Yes, this means I play each gig with a Strymon TimeLine and Mobius. Before I go any further I do want to say that I bloody love the both of them, they are incredible pieces of kit and it’s easy to see why they are considered to be the industry standard and sell so many every week, month and year.

However… would you be surprised to know that the TimeLine has been out for 6.5 years and that is a LONG time in terms of tech. Granted, it’s received software upgrades in that time (currently on v1.84 as we speak), but from what I understand, the hardware on the new ones you buy in store today is the same as the ones that were first released. Let’s put that into context in a more accessible format. The TimeLine is like having an iPhone 4. Loads of people have them (including my kids) but it’s safe to say, it’s in no way considered to be the cutting edge of technology. If you were considering paying hundreds of pounds for a new phone, would you choose an iPhone 4? No, you wouldn’t. If we are being honest here, the display of the big three Strymons are straight out of a Nokia 3310 rather than an iPhone X.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of new products come out that challenge the mighty TimeLine as the first call MIDI controllable programmable delay pedal. BOSS have come out hard and strong with the DD-500 and to pick the one I have personal experience with, the Source Audio Nemesis is fantastic, albeit a very slimmed down version. I know about the Eventide and TC Electronic (haven’t we all seen endless arguments about which is better), but I’m going to stick with the ones I know properly, otherwise, this will be very long and very boring. When I first got my hands on a TimeLine, I spent hour after hour marvelling over what it could do, how amazing it sounded (I’m a big fan of the analogue through signal that many other pedals do NOT have) and spent literally hours playing with the ICE setting, The Filter, The Dual, Duck, Swell… well, you know, the list is endless. It was great, great fun.

BUT… (and yes, hardened viewers of Game of Thrones may chuckle at that, consider Ned Stark’s opinion of that word) when I had programmed my gig board (which if I am honest, generally only gets played properly at gigs) I realised I didn’t use any of that, I use the dBucket and Digital setting, regular quarter notes and a dotted 8th, and it never goes over 500 or so milliseconds. I have 6 patches I use and they are all pretty standard stuff. Now, if I played a lot of U2 songs or some of the more interesting Floyd stuff etc etc etc, I would use more, but I’m guessing that in so far as a regular gigging musician, I’m pretty much the same as the vast majority of players out there… So, why do I have this beast? It’s simple… because everyone else does and it’s considered, still, to be the best in its class.

To go back to something I mentioned earlier, there was an incident that made me rethink this properly and was somewhat of an enlightening moment for me. The lummox of a bass player that is in the band I play in dropped an XLR on the tap tempo switch of my Mobius and snapped it clean off. I was pretty horrified to notice it had a composite plastic shaft and broke extremely easily. I had a little trouble with Strymon when I tried to order a replacement, but they stood up to the mark and sorted me out, so this isn’t a bitter retort about customer service, but more of a contemplation on how we view and buy gear. I challenged them about the shafts and they said they were the best option for the pedals. Considering they sell replacements for them on their site for $4, I am thinking maybe they aren’t. But, that’s only here because it was the catalyst for my change of thought process.

Simply and honestly, I got the Strymon’s because everyone had one and G.A.S. - I didn’t really think about it.

A good mate of mine distributes Source Audio in the UK and let me borrow the Nemesis after I told him what I actually wanted rather than what I thought would be fun… and guess what, it does absolutely everything I need and no more – and, it’s also over $200 cheaper than the TimeLine in-store. I’m currently in the process of changing the TimeLine over to the Nemesis, and it’s almost hilarious the number of people who say “WHAT? WHY!!!?” when I tell them.

Let’s look at the Nemesis for a minute. It has all the silly stuff, including some interesting pitch shifting type features etc, but it appears to have been designed by gigging guitar players. There are no endless submenus through an awful display to get a decent effect, the selections on the ‘main delay type selector thing’ are incredible – for example, the slapback feature is sublime, the tape setting sounds much more tape like than the Strymon and everything is just there, and just right. Granted, if you are a tweaker, the amount of variables in the TimeLine is quite remarkable, but… for me… well, there is a reason I work for an analogue effects manufacturer I suppose, I just get pissed off with scrolling through things to tweak the lo-pass filter and the subdecaytrouserfilament etc. (on a crappy numerical LCD display - you may be sensing a theme here).  I just want something that I can program in a heartbeat, using only the knobs on the top, and save it quickly to a location and then call up that patch via MIDI.

Since then, I’ve also got a BOSS MD-500 here that will probably replace the Mobius. Because for the price I can sell the Mobius for, I can replace with a brand new BOSS pedal (I know, if you are reading this and thinking “Bloody hell, how much do they sell for in the UK?” but I got offered a great price for one… so….) The BOSS outperforms the Mobius in absolutely every situation, much higher processing power, much stronger unit physically and the display is gorgeous, I can see everything I need to see in order to program the thing. So, pretty soon, I imagine I will be Strymon free.

Like I said above, this isn’t me knocking the Strymon, they are fantastic and have served me well. It’s just about time they updated them, physically – because pretty soon, their age and awkward displays are going to be outdated, if not so already. So, I challenge you Strymon, stop messing around with digital distortions and v2 the big three. Updated with OLED displays, increased processing power (as the Source Audio and everything else that is more reasonably priced has either the same, or more powerful, levels of processing) to refine the tones that are in there (at least attempt to put a decent tape emulator in, PLEASE) -  because if you do, you will once again set the benchmark that other companies will take literally years to catch up on.

The Gauntlet has been thrown down. Let’s leave 2011 tech where it belongs and show me something that will melt my mind… not with silly pointless effects, but something that a regular gigging guy (with a MIDI controller) can really hit ‘that’ mark and do justice to the G.A.S. your products are still kinda generating. If not a v2, but with maybe a streamlined TimeLine v2 to go with it… Because pretty soon, reputation alone just won’t cut it – your reputation is still there, just, but there are others are gaining momentum, and gaining it VERY quickly.

Tumnus Deluxe

Oooops, they did it again. Unfortunately for us, and you, a few dealers saw fit to release details of the Tumnus Deluxe before the release date, so this pedal will come as no surprise to many of you. Shame really, but I’m guessing when a pedal is as eagerly awaited as this one is, it’s fairly inevitable that people will want to get ahead of the game. 

But, that as we say, is already history. We are managing the release now, we’ve officially announced it, so it’s now out there – let’s just get on with what this thing actually does. As usual, I gigged the pedal last week to get a feel for it, and here is what I found from that night and playing with it afterwards. I’ve also extensively A-B’d it with the mini so…

The pedal. First of all, I must say, it’s bloody beautiful. I’m pretty self-deprecating when it comes to my work, but with this, I give myself a pat on the back. It looks ace. Taking the original concept and expanding on it, complete with white LED in the lamppost :D

When I first plugged it in, my initial reaction was that it was much smoother than the mini. Everything seems to be a little more rounded, a little more pleasing to the ear when using it as standalone overdrive. I always found the mini to be a little gnarly and out the box, the Deluxe has been smoothed a little, with a tweak of the gain and the EQ, you can replicate that gnarliness, but you can get a much smoother tone if you require it. For me, this is a massive bonus. Setting the bass and mids at 12, normal mode, buffer in, you get pretty close to the Tumnus. Increase the gain a fraction and the treble a little, you have an almost identical replication of it. However, when you then drop the mids back a little it smooths out somewhat, and when you bring them back up past to where it was, the tone just jumps out at you. Flicking on to true bypass doesn’t do a huge amount initially, it’s a fraction smoother again, but that just shows what a wonderful buffer Brian put in the mini. However, when I started stacking up over drives over the top (more about this later) the true bypass really started to shine.

I dropped the pedal straight into my gig board in place of the mini (it was most amusing, I had a glove covering it on my board just in case a camera phone was out, highly unlikely, but you never know – the singer thought this was hilarious and made repeated jokes about me throwing the gauntlet down) So, my gain section was Tumnus Deluxe into 2-1 of the PaisleyDog. Right away, I noticed that smoothness and clarity that the true bypass gave, I got the original Tumnus tone by tweaking, but ended up using the smoother version. I found that I was boosting the mids slightly, not quite so much top end and keeping the bass ever so slightly rounded off. This gave me a much fuller sound. The Tumnus for me is almost an always-on pedal, the Bravado is immensely unforgiving in its cleanliness, so I use it to break it up a little. Also, when you have the Underdog growling at you, bringing the Tumnus in behind it makes it sound massive with considerable bite. The Tumnus Deluxe with its expanded EQ options gave me slightly more control over that, and allowed me to really tailor that bite and hone it exactly where I wanted it. The one thing I really noticed was that the whole thing was just slightly fuller due to the EQ, it was slightly more pleasing to listen too as the gnarlyness was gone - when I was stacking two overdrives on top of it, as well as compression before, it wasn’t jumping to feedback so quick. I had much much more control over my tone because the base tone was somewhat more refined.

I’m not going to wax lyrical about it, I want you to make up your own minds when you get the chance to play it, but my initial thoughts of this pedal and what it does remain from when I first plugged into it. And those are: it’s smoother, it’s eminently more tweakable to nail THAT exact tone you are chasing and most of all, it has a white LED within a streetlamp on the graphic. Worth it just for that alone I’d say!

Mojo - The hype is real, right?

Chasing tone has become a hobby as much as it has been finding the right tools for the job. There are a load of options out there for almost any sound you can think of, but despite the smorgasbord of readily available designs, there are some circuits that are incredibly popular that are less than accessible to get ahold of. Whether it’s the increased “mojo,” hype created by word of mouth, waitlists, or general obscurity from the builders and their marketing practices, a lot of gear lust has been generated over these types of circuits. I’m going to look at a few popular mojo-driven methods that may or may not have any plausible foundation in the grand scheme of things.
 
In many cases, most gear businesses start out small, with only a single employee (the owner) and maybe one or two extra people to help. When they’re fledgeling shops like that, it’s a simple way to keep things hands-on, and it’s relatively easy to keep up with demand usually. Small shops lead to less overhead for the business owner, but it also leads to slower production times due to fewer hands to do the work. As business grown, they usually add on employees to accommodate the increased workload, then before you know it there’s a small to medium-sized business with dozens of employees that all would like to make a living, as well as providing insurance and all that fun stuff. However, some shops decide NOT to expand their employees due to various reasons…it could be due to not wanted to increase the workload or the costs associated with employees, etc. So, what happens when demand exceeds the supply provided? Well, there are a couple of options that various shops have done. One way is to only release batches on a first come, first serve basis. This is fairly straightforward in the fact that specific quantities are available, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. This allows the builder to design and build at their discretion and doesn’t hold them accountable aside from the requests to create more.
 
Another option is taking preorders. This is a slippery slope, due to the genuine possibility of taking people’s money but not having the quantity available to fulfil all of the preorders if the staffing isn't adequate. This leads to long wait-times with customers having money tied up in a product that may or may not have a first date of when they’ll get their gear. Sadly, there are things that happen that are out of many people’s control that cause delays, or in some cases, the builder just can’t build but so fast and lead times get longer and longer. The result is agitated customers who often want their money back. And finally, there are wait lists. These are lists that you sign up for that require no money down but often have a varying lead time of a few weeks to over a year. There’s no obligation, so it’s just a pleasant surprise when your name finally comes up. The real kicker with all of these cases just mentioned, is that all of this waiting leads to massive amounts of hype and gigantic markups in the used market. It’s a way for the lucky few to capitalize on the good fortune, offering to fulfill the GAS immediately (at a price), instead of making the player wait for an indeterminate amount of time to get their pedal. The result is hyping up these harder to find offerings as rare and mysterious and highly sought after. The Klon is a perfect example, and the KTR is a more current version of it. When the KTR first came out, shops sold out almost instantly when they were priced right around $269 or so, but looking on Reverb and eBay, they were marked up to $450 - $700. It’s a pay to play market, and time is money when it comes to rare gear. 
 
Next up, let’s look at one-offs, special events, and custom or limited colors/graphics, and “accidents.” We all like something a bit different that stands out from the crowd. It’s fun and unique and sits like a fun little nod to being awesome on your board. I love custom color pedals or custom graphics that are different from the production model. There’s a certain “something” to them. The same goes along for special event things, like themed pedals (holiday, jokes, etc.). It’s a kind of nostalgic, cheeky way of chasing tone and having a bit of fun with it. But let’s look at the reality of the situation: unless otherwise stated by the company as being unique or coming with a different set of functions, these are the same production models internally, but with a recase for a special color. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, and I love them, but it’s interesting how that becomes a marketing tool for the used market as well as the company. For companies, it’s a nice little nod to the players who enjoy their products, and often they’ll be a limited or very limited run. But if you search used ads there will definitely be a tag-line of “Custom color – rare.” Though it may be true that it’s limited, I suppose it just depends on the buyer as to what the value of a rehoused pedal would be? In situations like ours, we did a limited-edition batch of pink Tumnus’s, along with a few pink offerings over the years with all proceeds going to breast cancer research. The goal was to raise money for a charity, but we’ve seen used prices on these pedals skyrocket lately. The same goes for the Underdog, except it was also for charity but used prices have jumped to $400 or more. Not that the tones aren’t spectacular, but even Brian was taken back by how much markup things had due them being a bit harder to find. This is not meant to crap on companies who do limited runs; it’s more so a look at it from the business side as well as the consumer side.
 
Next up, let’s talk about eras of gear and the lust for certain versions or periods of time that these pieces of gear are manufactured. Generally speaking, new versions come about because the company felt a need to improve or change the design. This could be to increase the longevity of a pedal by upgrading components, swapping parts for less noise or adding features. Despite these facts that the new versions are designed to improve the overall sound, longevity, and ease of use for the players, there are still some out there that feel certain versions or eras of pedals have more mojo compared to current models. Again, some of these models may be harder to come by (but not always), and they supposedly sound much better and respond much better than the later version. I’ve seen this a lot with the Fulltone OCD and several others; we even have some of our older discontinued or revised pedals being collected. Admittedly there are some things that warrant thoughts like that, such as the Pinnacle Deluxe v1 having a very different control scheme than the Pinnacle Deluxe v2. In that case, it’s just a change of functionality and not necessarily a mojo thing. In the end, pedals are like puzzles, where all of the pieces have to be put together to reach the final project. Most of the time, it’s the same parts going in the same positions on the board, using the same solder. All that changes are the hands that solder the parts in or setup the boards. Sonic differences that may occur are the results of part tolerances being slightly different because it’s not always a scenario where every part is identical. The end goal is to make them as consistent as possible, and tuning them to be that way has been a vital part of keeping the pedals consistent over the years.
 
Jumping back a bit, I’m sure you saw me mention “accidents” earlier. Some of these truly are accidents, some of them are sadly not. Before releasing a pedal, Brian typically sends out prototypes to be tested (maybe one, maybe two or three). There are also some prototypes that are sent to trusted higher profile artists, their band and things like that. With the way the world is, people come, and they go in positions, and sometimes gear goes with them. The instances where those prototypes end up for sale is where it’s disheartening. Those prototypes are lent out expecting honesty and trust that they’ll be kept out of the reach of the public. This isn’t because there’s some magic, it’s because the circuit may or may not be complete, and the end goal of an excellent product that sounds great, functions great and is reliable is the end goal. However, the prototypes are considered gold, because it’s a scenario where it’s an opportunity to get something that no one else has. As someone once said regarding grabbing an unreleased pedal, “I just had to, ya know?” When in fact, no they didn’t. If you’ve been keeping up with our social media outlets (and especially our tone group on Facebook), we’ve been experiencing a few more leaks than we’d like to of unannounced pedals being posted for sale or shared by dealers. We plan ahead for months on a release, down to the smallest detail. It’s not necessarily the result of the release but more so the process we use to allude and build up to it. This is completely undermined and destroyed when leaks happen. We completely understand the excitement and the urge to share the info with fellow tone-chasers, but it also hits us hard mentally because of having the rug pulled out from under us so to speak. It’s discouraging and infuriating and sad at the same time.
 
So why did I write this blog and kill hopes and dreams? Mainly to set the record straight and clarify what’s going on with the magic in these sought-after pedals. Mojo is what you make it out to be. If it’s a pedal or guitar or amp that just feels right and connects, then that emotional connection can be considered mojo. On the other hand, there are many times where mojo created as a byproduct of desiring what can’t be obtained, the chance to try something that has been so hyped up, and the desire to stick out from the crowd. 

Synergy Amps - GAS

This week I want to tell you about a piece of gear I first played nearly a year ago. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while, as I wanted to wait until it was released, and it just has.

The company is called Synergy Amps and I’m a fan. And before you start to think cynically, I’m not employed by them! 

As always, there’s a story attached to this for context, so I’ll get that out of the way first. When at NAMM I suffer horrifically from jetlag. As Cali is 8 hours behind the UK my sleep patterns are destroyed and I literally get about 4 hours of sleep per night, I’m not there for long enough to try to force it around with sleeping tablets, so I just live with it. The best thing about this is that I’m up at the crack of doom and generally get to the show each morning LONG before the doors are open. I usually take this time to do a line check on the rig and make sure everything is in place before the people attend the show, start attending.

One morning I was there so early the only people on the booth complex we are part of, the wider Boutique Amp Distribution booth, were myself, Bruce Egnator, Groover Jackson and my buddy Steve Elowe. Now, Bruce and Groover being there isn’t integral to this, but I just wanted to make you all sound the name drop horn in your heads – it still freaks me out that these guys are just milling around to talk too, a real pinch yourself moment! The Wampler rig was fine so I wandered off to see Steve who was sat at a computer, with guitar in hand, rocking hard. He was also gently cussing under his breath about latency issues, so I offered to help. He got me to play while he did something to the computer. 

I was playing through the new Synergy Amps rig.

At first I just played enjoying the tones, then he started to press buttons and all these different sounds were appearing, so I was playing different stuff on the fly as the sounds were so radically different. He then stood up and said “That’s better”. The computer was now behaving how it should so we had some time to play with the Synergy rig.

Let me fill you in on what this thing is. Basically, Synergy is a modular system that has ports which allows you to add various modules that sound and behave like the amps they are based upon. You buy the dock, a single or double module unit, and then load the amp module in. The docks are 12AX7 driven with a ton of different out options. There is a straight “preamp out” and an emulated out to go into your PA/desk/DAW - I was initially playing through the preamp out to a power amp, but once Steve had sorted the latency on the computer he pushed it over to the emulated out. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I had an incredibly authentic Soldano SLO100 tone coming straight from the studio monitors that sounded EXACTLY the same as the preamp out, and from what I can remember about playing an SLO (which I have played through a lot) exactly the same as the amp – not only tonally, but in respect of response. The way it responded to my picking dynamics, the volume pot and the gain… man… the gain... 

At that point he started to show me the differing modules, which could be changed in a matter of seconds. One minute I was ripping through the SLO, and then quickly through a Friedman BE which was just roaring, then back into a TDLX which had the kind of clean tones you’d expect from a blackfaced, or tweed finished amp, then a Morgan AC that was SO glassy… and then… and then…. and then... 

After I’d played it for seemed like 5 seconds, which in reality was almost ¾ of an hour, I was left thinking about the practical uses of this system and where it sits in the market place. The first thing that got me, other than the tone that was coming from it, was the ease of use and how practical it can be in any set up. In a way, it was like having a modelling system but without the endless sub menu’s and degree in computer science to work it, or let’s face it, if you are anything like me, tons and tons of stuff that you would just never, ever use. This I think is where this product is going to sit, right in the place where people want a ton of options, but only the specific ones they require, and something that has real tubes, real knobs and real tone. You can literally have a mountain of boutique amps available, at a fraction of the cost and using a fraction of the room, just ‘there’.

The trouble I’ve always had with the modelling stuff, apart from ‘that’ reaction (which let’s face it, that gap is being bridged all the time), is that you generally have to get rid of your original amp set up and get a full range amp/speaker to go with it. You don’t get the best results from those things going into your amp, they still sound great, but they work best when everything is modelled and you are going direct. Then, they sound incredible. The beauty of the Synergy system is that it can be run direct within the loop of your favourite amp, giving you multiple new channels to play with. For many players, those that don’t want the computery stuff and love their rig already, this HAS to be the best thing, well - as we say over here, since sliced bread. Also it works flawlessly direct into your DAW, or PA, it has a great FX loop (so you can run your favourite effects in there, the ones that were originally in the loop of your amp if you used it that way)… I’m not sure who is behind this system, but I doff my cap in their general direction. 

From looking at the website, I can see that the docks are $499 for the single and $799 for the double, there is also all tube heads available and a power amp. The modules are $399. So, let’s look at a boutique level amp, which I’m guessing you will all agree tends to be around $2k to buy and generally only give you the sound associated with that amp, you get what you get and nothing else. So, consider this, If you have a great amp you can buy the dock and 2 modules for ¾ of the price of a new and different sounding head, and then keep adding to it for $399, you will start to build up an amp collection that is worthy of Joe Bonamassa. Then think that these modules are small enough to get two into a single 19” rack unit. Even if you have 8 modules and the Syn2 (double port dock) it comes to less than 2 full boutique level amps. That’s 8 amps for the price of two. Once you have the dock, the modules are so cheap GAS will be screaming for new ones all the time.

I don’t get excited about new technology products very often mainly because I like tubes, knobs and instantly available tone and most of the time these days, all those things appear to be missing in new innovative technology. New gear concepts these days usually consists of “sitting down with a manual the size of a novel and 3 hours just to get the amp tone you want that’s hidden in the middle of other stuff that appears to have no practical musical use to anyone”.

I want one.

www.synergyamps.com

 

 

 

Pick a Partscaster

If you are in the market for a new guitar, there’s no better time than right now to be into the chase for tone. It seems in the past few years that a plethora of builders have popped up, each excelling at their craft with the ability to take the ideas you’ve always dreamt of and make them a reality. We’ve come to a stage in the gear community where artistic expression is at a peak, where if you want something unique and feature-laden, it’s certainly doable. Want an accurate recreation of your favorite vintage instrument, down to the pickups and even decades of wear and tear? All those options are entirely possible and at varying price points. The market lets the player decide how much to spend, and a dream guitar can be had by various methods; whichever suits the player the best. The first thing that people often bring up when discussing custom guitars is pricing. More often than not, the pricing for a custom guitar can rival or significantly surpass the cost of an off the shelf guitar. There are a lot of factors that go into why that’s the case, which I’ll dive into a bit later. I’m going to look through a few variables and options regarding custom guitars and ways to go about achieving them, and what makes them great and what some of the drawbacks are.
 
Let’s start off by looking at traditional guitars, and why guitarists prefer the tried and true designs as the basis of the perfect personalized instrument. If you look back to the 50’s and 60’s of guitar history, you’ll see that the likes of Leo Fender, Les Paul, and a few others seemingly hit the proverbial nail on the head when they created their takes on the electric guitar. So much so that each of the aforementioned builders and their subsequent companies have built stellar, roadworthy guitars that have been in the hands of millions upon millions of guitarists worldwide. They’ve become so iconic that the sound of these guitars is instantly tied to our favorite guitarist through the years. When you hear a Strat, a plethora of artists spring to mind (in no particular order): Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, David Gilmour, Dick Dale, Robert Cray…the list of Strat players is staggering. Teles are the same with the likes of Albert Collins, Prince, Andy Summers, Keith Richards, James Burton, Muddy Waters. Gibson? Billy Gibbons, Slash, Jimmy Page, Angus and Malcolm Young, Peter Green, Albert and B.B. King, Randy Rhoades, and these are only just barely scratching the surface of prominent players that I’d be willing to bet have had some form of influence on every player, in some way. At the same time for all of these incredible players listed, a massive amount of them have delved into the custom realm, whether it’s through artist-series guitars, creating their own unique designs, or using boutique builders. These are our guitar heroes, and their sound shaped generation after generation of players to come, even to this day after many have long passed. It’s no wonder many players would use those famous tones and the foundation and springboard for crafting their own sound. Each used their respective instrument to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.
 
I won’t go too much into current models of various companies, but there are still a load of different models by too many companies to list that follow the traditional approach. Companies like Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, etc., or revised versions of the classics with personal accouterments like unique finishes or relicing, and so on. Along with standard models that have a streamlined setup with neck shape, pickup combinations, and finishes, many of those companies offer signature guitars that famous artists regularly use (most of the time). These are customized versions that match the player, and great options for providing a variety of different guitars at a cost-effective price point. Sometimes though, these standard models can get the player close to where they want the guitar to be, but not exactly. This is why the guitar parts business has been a boisterous endeavor. There are a considerable number of shops you can visit online that let you piece out the perfect build, down to neck radius, finish and inlays to the routing options for various bodies and bridges control cavities. All things that are made to be easily swappable on the stock instruments to make them a bit more customized to the player. Swapping and upgrading is a cost-effective way to make a guitar customized to the player without going out and fully commissioning a custom build. Many of these online shops offer custom finishes, and some even offer relicing services to make the guitar look like something that had been used on tour for 40 years with tones of use and abuse.
 
These pieces and parts lead me into partscasters. Partscasters are the amalgamation of various parts in the attempt to find the right fit and feel and sound by creating it from a pile of parts sourced from various locations. Eddie Van Halen was one of the pioneers that led people to start hacking into the guitars and building what suited their personal needs when companies didn’t offer it. He used a Gibson PAF in an old strat-style body and created some of the most memorable music that would spawn hundreds of thousands of guitarists. He found what worked for him and made it his own. When going for a partscaster build, the sky is the limit. It could be a neck based off of a vintage-style Strat paired with a MIM Telecaster body with a pre-wired set of pickups from a small shop that hand-winds their own pickups. Or you could get a Flying V-shaped body with a neck setup for 12 strings, with pearl inlays and a figured ziricote fretboard. See what I mean? You can get as “out there” and intricate as you’d like, or build after the classics. Sites such as Warmoth and USA Custom Guitar allow you to pick the various details of your build, so they come as finished or as unfinished as you’d like them to be. This allows the player to simply screw everything together and do a bit of soldering and have a functional guitar on a relatively decent budget. I say relatively because depending on what choices are made with the types of woods used and various finishes, the costs can add up quickly. In the end though, if you’re coming out of it with the exact guitar that you want, then it’s worth it. The Pros are that you get control in the details of the construction of the guitar within a set number of given parameters, but the negative is that it does require a bit of experience and knowledge to get the guitar to where you want it properly. Setups are vital for having them stay in tune and function properly, and for inexperienced players, it can be an exercise in frustration. The same goes for soldering, especially if it’s not using a prewired kit. Without proper soldering, it can lead to increased noise or no sound at all. 
 
The next thing that truly takes the guitar into the “custom” realm is having one commissioned from a company that builds to spec. These are often more expensive, but the player gets considerably more control, with the bonus of the attention to detail and experience that comes from the builder’s history. Many builders still offer a standard line of body shapes that they will do, some traditional and some very modern and unique. Like the partscaster, you get to pick out your dream instrument, from the type of wood the body is made of, pickup routes, a plethora of finishes, the scale length of the neck, radius, neck shape, what frets are used, nut type, tuners, pickups, custom wiring…everything. The attention to details is what sets these guitars apart from the standard guitars that are off the shelf. Having a guitar that’s perfectly fitted to your playing style, the feel, and sound of the pickups makes you want to pick the instrument up more because you enjoy playing it. These builders have become experts in their fields and have listened to customer feedback, evolving and honing their craft to provide those little nuances that make each creation so special. A big question that comes up is “Is it $$$ better?” It depends on how you look at it. In some cases, depending on what is commissioned, there won’t necessarily be a huge difference. If it’s a T-style with a fairly run of the mill setup with two pickups and a 3-way selector and a fairly known color, then to some that may not be worth it. The details of the fret leveling and action and overall playability would be the biggest upgrade.  Is it worth several hundred dollars extra to some people? Most likely not. That’s the beauty of chasing tone and falling in love with the guitar, is that everything is subjective and will be different for everyone. Variety is the spice of life, so they say. The quest for tone is unending, and finding the perfect feeling and sounding guitar is another piece to that puzzle. What are you willing to pay for it?
 
Personally, own a few of each configuration mentioned above. I’ve got a ‘12 Les Paul Traditional that I upgraded with 50’s wiring and bumblebee capacitors to increase the range of tones available in the tone knobs. The new American Pro Strats just hit the spot, stock off of the shelf (admittedly I always block the trem, just because I’m a hardtail guy). I’ve also got a couple of Crook Custom telecasters that are decked out completely with custom finishes, neck specs, and even G-Benders. There’s a soft spot and something special about each one that makes them fit what I’m looking to do. The one thing I will say, that for me (I don’t speak for everyone), that custom guitars do not necessarily make me play any better, skill-wise. I may enjoy playing more when it fits just right, and I can get into it more, which subsequently makes me practice and the long game is an improvement, but switching from one guitar to another doesn’t have a dramatic effect. The guitars output what your mind and yours hands put into them and no amount of money can buy technique. That’s something I had to learn as I was starting off, and it’s stuck with me all this time.