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Life in the gear industry isn’t always as glamorous as it may seem. My idea of it years ago was playing guitar through prototypes, testing new products and talking to famous people all the time. Some of those are true, but it’s far less than most would imagine. Most days revolve around spreadsheets, marketing insights and subsequent planning, loads of content creation and customer-service stuff. It’s still great because it’s based on a passion of mine, but sometimes like I’ve said before that expectation and reality usually aren’t the same thing. Occasionally though, I do get to get out from behind the desk and go have some fun. I’ve been a long-time fan of Cory Wong’s, and he and I had been talking for a few months because he was interested in an amp that I have (Tone King Imperial MKII). He’s been wanting to try one, so I found out that he was going to be playing a show in Virginia not far from me, and I decided to make the trek to VA Beach and take a few Wampler’s along for him to try as well.
Soundcheck started at 5 pm for the gig at 9, and from the moment I walked in Cory treated me instantly like a long-lost friend he hadn’t seen in a while. He’s genuinely just one of the sweetest and most genuine guys in the world. I’ll be the first to say that I’m a fan and had to curb my enthusiasm to be professional…and it only borderline worked. Soundcheck started, he and the band ran through the setup with visuals that they ran directly from Corey’s MAC from the stage, operated by Kevon Gastonguay who also pulls synth duties. Normal soundcheck proceeded as they adjusted all their levels and they ran through 3-4 of Cory’s classic songs (Dial-Up, Pleasin’, and Clouds) including a new section they were going to add to a song for the live set. He had said before that he loves the Ego Compressor, but it really hit home when he never shut it off the entire night and that it was the only pedal that he said he used with Vulfpeck as well. This show was different than most I’ve been to because Cory isn’t a lead singer, but more so a harmonizer. The backing screen has always been part of the show at every concert, but Cory integrated with it, so it was like another band member. He had recorded Antwaun Stanley singing in a booth and harmonized with the video, using vocal effects he had set on his mic for ambience and voice changing effects.
I knew from the initial few notes that these guys were the next level of locked-in to the groove together. I’ve been very fortunate to see quite a few live acts, and I’ve never seen a band so rhythmically tight as Cory and his band. We hung out for a few hours while Cory tested some pedals (Mini Ego, Tumnus, Clarksdale, FTEv2, Ethereal and a pedal no one has seen yet). He loved the new pedal, as well as the Clarksdale and Tumnus, and it was refreshing to see that he knew exactly what he wanted and needed for live use, and in his playing style, he just didn’t need a delay. He said they’re fun but just unnecessary for him. He was straight with me the entire way with what he loved and wished was a bit different, but in the eend, e kept coming back to his love of the Ego Comp. The guys finished up and headed to go get some food, so I watched the opening act Jacob Sigman and his band sound check as well. Their guitarist was in need of a reverb pedal and asked if I happen to bring anything. So, we loaded up the Ethereal and dialled in a great slapback with a touch of plate reverb, and he loved it. He used it the entire show and adjusted it on the fly, and it sounded killer.
The show was fantastic. Jacob's band was tight and had a great mix of synth-pop with funky rhythms. After about 7 songs Cory hit the stage and they went to town like it was the last gig they were ever going to play. It was like a master-class in musicianship and rhythm, as the grooves were so tight that it felt like the whole building was locked into it and moving with them. Cory had just recently gotten the coveted “Koz Nod,” which is the industry nod from Dave Koz which serves and an official welcome into the world of smooth jazz. They played for about an hour and a half, and it left me the most inspired that I’ve ever been. He did play some incredibly cool solos, but his rhythmic chops are on another level, and his strat just sounded perfect into the Imperial MKII. The entire time Cory was grateful, joked with the crowd and just made it feel like a bunch of friends hanging out and jamming.
Coming back around to the Imperial MKII, he loved the amp but literally only had a use for the rhythm channel (blackface). One thing that I can say is that there’s absolutely no substitute for raw talent, practice, and subsequently refined skillsets from the combination of both. Fundamentally, gear is a tool, and he showed me that clearer than any other player I’ve seen. Gear is fun, no doubt, but a tool nonetheless for musicians to express themselves. Some do it with extravagant rigs and various combinations of effects wizardry, and others cut to the bare bones and let their hands do the talking. Most of the night it was just Strat > Ego Compressor > Imperial MKII, and it sounded great. No frills, just incredible honed skill that made me reassess my own playing and evaluate what was important in my gear choices, and what I had just as excess. I can definitely say that after seeing him play through my amp, that tone is DEFINITELY largely in the hands.