Truly Beautiful Disaster

August 26, 2009

Truly Beautiful Disaster pedal from OohLaLa

Joining the Flavor Crystals gave me the best excuse to get into effects pedals once again. Before this, I’d mainly concentrated on clean tones with minimal effects (overdrive, delay, or tremolo). But the Crystals require a different way of going – experimental sound is the major driving force in the writing process – which is why my pedal board has become larger and heavier with more pedals (over 10 last I checked).

At a recent practice session, Dan (our Frisco-based guitar man) brought in his latest find: the Truly Beautiful Disaster pedal from OohLaLa. Originally designed and manufactured by Devi Ever for her Effector 13 line (now called Devi Ever), it was ’boutique’ at its finest. The pedal has had a few cosmetic overhauls over the years, having a look resembling the U.S. Electro-Harmonix designs, custom-painted versions, and the most recent green silk-screen design that is on its current production. The sound? As it’s name implies, a truly beautiful disaster (although ‘beautiful’ is subjective) and can be scary at times, which is just what I would expect from a boutique pedal of this type.

The TBD is described as an oscillating fuzz with an effects loop and photosensitive eye. Knob controls are volume, fuzz, oscillation, blend, and feedback along with on-off toggle switches for gate, photo-eye, and loop feedback. The fuzz control is quite scary, for it produces a popping distortion that sounds like your speaker is about to blow. This type of fuzz is an arpeggiated effect. The blend knob controls the mix of your dry guitar signal and the fuzz. The pedal has 2 footswitches, one for fuzz and the other for the feedback loop. The feedback knob controls the amount of feedback from the loop chain. When the loop is on, the photo-eye acts as a theremin-like controller that responds to the shifts of light in the room. The pedal includes effects send and return jacks – this is where you create your signal chain (distortion or other pedals, etc.) for the feedback loop. You can watch the pedal in action here.

Dan connected a Moogerfooger MF-101 Low Pass Filter to the TBD’s feedback loop chain and the sound he created (along with overdrive and analog delay) was one of the coolest I’d ever heard.  The Low Pass Filter’s dynamics created a spontaneous wah and phase effect in the feedback loop. This was then blended into his normal guitar signal with the effect beautifully responding to his nuanced playing. The Moogerfooger took away the high frequencies and left us with this very pleasing and warm fuzzed out guitar sound. I decided then I had to get one.

I found a gently used one on eBay with all the schwag – inkjet printout of the instructions, box with catalog, and a very cool anime character-looking fleece pouch.  My son E thought it was very cute. Somehow he got a hold of it from my guitar case and got it out of it’s pouch exclaiming “Wow! Wow! Wow!” Even at 2, he knew this was one special toy.

E discovering the TBD pedal

E discovering the TBD pedal

It took a few days of playing with it to get familiar with the controls. Be careful of the fuzz knob – I keep it low or near 0 (my first try at this control, I thought the pedal was broken – it created intense explosion sounds thru my amp!) It’s incredibly wild with a distortion pedal and some form of modulation in the feedback loop. The photo-eye adds a little extra to the mix by changing the pitch of the feedback signal as the ambient light in the room changes (with my foot or hand over the sensor). It will take some time to integrate this into my rig as it is unpredictable in nature. But this is all good.  Now I just need to get that damn Low Pass filter…


Guitar Rescue

August 24, 2009

1972 Gibson SG Standard

Back in the mid 90s, my wife K (friend at the time) had been searching for an electric guitar.  Both of us were playing her brother’s Washburn solid body electric and it was high time we both had our own axes to shred on.  I found mine (a 1979 Gibson Les Paul Standard) not too long into my search. I’ll post about this later.

I was at art school at the time, in-between classes, and K had suddenly shown up at the art building lobby. Excited, she told me that she had found a used Gibson SG, from some hippy guy.  She had sought me out to see if $300 was a fair price. Apparently this ‘hippy’ hated the guitar and told her it was a POS. All this went over my head except for the fact that it was an authentic Gibson electric. I said, “By all means, buy it!” Still panting from running all the way from her apartment, she said “Thanks, I’ll see you later!” and ran off presumably to nab the guitar.

I saw the guitar about a day later at her apartment. It was a Gibson alright. It was a 1972 SG Standard. The neck had been repaired where it meets the headstock. It’s still hard to tell whether this was from the common neck cracks typical of old 70s Gibsons or if it had been from abuse – whichever it was, the repair was nicely done. The crack had been sanded nicely and refinished to smooth it out.  There is only the dark faded mark where the repair had taken place.

Besides typical nicks and dings, the guitar input jack had wood damage around it – probably from the jack being forced at an angle with the guitar still plugged in. The input jack had been replaced and covered with a wide area washer to compensate for the missing wood around the jack.  Despite this damage, this particular repair does the job if not aesthetically fitting.  But admittedly, the damages give the guitar a certain character and mystique. It was obvious the guitar had been through a lot.

The neck had the block inlays typical of SGs of this time. However, there was no binding. At first, I thought this was perhaps a non-original neck (bindless necks are often present in ‘studio’ models of Gibson electrics). But further research revealed that this was part of a limited run of SG Standards in 1972. There were 100 of these guitars made without the neck binding. This particular feature adds to the rarity of the guitar as well as making the neck faster in playability.

The rest of the chrome hardware is original including the pick-ups – and they sound awesome: fat, warm humbuckers with great dynamic response and sustain. It wasn’t as deep and round as a Les Paul but sounded just like it’s younger, thinner sibling. The case had long been gone, and most likely destroyed considering the guitar’s probable history. It was not treated well.

Which brings me to the ‘dufus’ who had sold this guitar to K. As it turned out, he had been the resident “annoying hippy” at the college dorm we had lived in the previous year and who only played R.E.M. riffs endlessly… Peter Buck would cringe. Chances are this is the same guy who abused this guitar, probably in a fit of despair and rage that he couldn’t play worth a damn – and not even the medicinal properties of his marijuana could convince him otherwise. Thank the guitar gods.

The guitar has been in a good home since, used in almost all of our recordings. Quiet, reliable and full of character, this guitar sings – from Angus Young to George Harrison to The Who – and to almost every other indie band out there.  This one is a real rare original, with the scars to prove it and the tone to boot.

This guitar has officially been rescued.


Fender Twin Finds a New Home

August 15, 2009

1994 '65 Fender Twin Reverb Reissue

I had recently said goodbye to a very trusty Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Reissue. It was one of the last U.S. made Twin Reverbs (Brea, California) before Fender shifted production to Mexico. It was a workhorse of an amp – literally. At nearly 70 lbs. it was painful to lug around (with casters) and I even took it on tour when our band Flavor Crystals travelled the U.S. with the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

My wife (and her brother) were the official owners and she had used it on many of our recordings as well as her main stage amp. It was extremely loud and clean to the point of overpowering anyone on stage. The volume knob never went past 3 or your ears melted (and that’s not a good thing). It did take effects very well, had that unmistakeable tube tone and survived a caseless 2 month tour in the van. Biased high (to get to that warm vacuum tube breakup earlier), it wore out the power tubes every 3-4 years.

But as an amp, it kept its circuitry intact despite its printed circuit board (the original 60s models were point-to-point hand-wired). It never failed us, and we loved it for what it was – a unique tube monster. But its weight, loudness, and overall heftiness (all 85 watts of it) eventually became problematic. My back despised it and our other guitarist (who used a 60s Ampeg Gemini 1×12) just couldn’t compete volumewise. As a recording amp, you also had to turn it up in order to get that nice natural tubey thing going – and that was frickin’ loud as hell. In a quiet neighborhood or apartment, it just wouldn’t do. In a studio however, it was magic.

I learned to use K’s green Ibanez Tube Screamer in front of the amp to drive it during our southwest shows and it sounded great. This didn’t keep it from still overpowering everyone in the band, however. About a month after the tour, it wore out the Groove Tubes 6L6s.  I had it re-biased again and installed a matched quartet of Rubys. The amp was new again – smoother sounding and silkier than the Groove Tubes.

A couple of weeks later, while in California, I found a Craigslist listing for a daphne blue ’65 Fender Mustang Reissue. K had stated she had a soft spot for the Mustang (especially the daphne blue one), with its horse reference and cool retro looks. I did as well. There is nothing cooler and sexier than a chick rockin’ out on a Mustang! That evening, I posted the Twin on Craigslist, in the hopes that someone would give it a new home and an affordably priced Mustang take it’s place. Less than a week later, the Twin was gone – and to a very nice new owner whom I could tell would treat it nice and appreciate its unique powerful sound. Oddly enough, the buyer’s bandmate had seen us play the Metro in Chicago a few weeks before – “That amp was on stage!” The amp’s tour credentials helped it find its new owner. A couple of days later, K became the owner of a beautiful and gently used Fender Mustang.

We’ll both miss that little Twin beast.  Our backs… Not so much.


Like Father and Mother, Like Son

August 4, 2009
Magic mic in action

Magic mic in action (with spring reverb!)

There are times in life when the parenting experience can really be magical. Forget the increasing sleep deficit, financial anxiety, or all the time lost doing the kid routine when you could be mixing tracks, trying out new pedals, modding a guitar or just jamming with the boys (and gals). I remember when I got my first voice recorder – a little Panasonic cassette thing – I was 7. Hearing my own voice and other people’s played back in that hissy lo-fi speaker – it was magnificent.

Yesterday, my son E recorded his singing voice for the first time by himself on a little Parents brand microphone recorder given to him by a family friend (it has since been replaced a few times).  He sang his own rendition of the ABC song, ending in D.  What struck me was the way he smiled to himself playing the track over and over in what seemed like an infinite loop. He was really proud of that moment.

Toy microphone recorder
Parents brand microphone

I took pleasure in thinking, perhaps all these toys I’ve been hanging onto – old sequencers, old cassettes (remember those?) and records, synthesizers, 4-track machines, microphones – he’d have a use for someday, maybe even in his own studio… Now there’s a Rockerdad dream.

But really, it all comes down to that self satisfaction. Most of us have felt it – that moment when we’ve finally figured something out, whether it be a math problem, a computer program, a middle 8 in a song or just learning how to record and play back something… To see it in a 2 year old is AMAZING. K (my wife) silently agreed with me. In a subtle way, it reminded me of when she used to fiddle around with her old 4-track machine obsessively: a bottle of beer in one hand, an American Spirit in the other. She felt it too.  Like Father and Mother, like son.


Classic Player Jazzmaster

July 30, 2009

Fire Escapes (1999) acrylic on canvas

Fire Escapes (1999) acrylic on canvas

Nearly a year into fatherhood, I sold my first real painting (titled “Fire Escapes”) at the very fine Paoli House Gallery in Wisconsin. It was bought by an elderly retired architect who had visited twice to inquire about it. Being my first “official” sale from the gallery, it didn’t seem fitting to spend the money on something temporary (like a computer or some trendy new gadget) – I had to replace the painting with something more permanent.

I thought of furniture, another piece of art…  And then one day, I received one of those flashy Guitar Center catalogs – and inside was a centerfold of the newly designed Fender Classic Player Jazzmaster and Jaguar. I had always coveted these distinct guitars and decided it was my chance to own one.  So, I did the unthinkable and ordered it online without even playing it.  I was that hooked.

About 10 days later, the guitar came to my door. To my untrained eye, it was beautiful, in 3-tone sunburst and lacquer finish (the brown tortoisehell pickguard would later change to an aluminum anodized gold pickguard which I will post about later). Heavier than I expected, it seemed perfect and played nicely with just a touch of action adjustment. I was disappointed however, that it didn’t ship with a hard shell case – an accessory this guitar certainly deserves. (I did get a vintage style tweed case for it a few days later.)

Classic Player Jazzmaster with gold pickguard
Classic Player Jazzmaster with gold pickguard

There are plenty of Jazzmaster purists out there who have been putting down this guitar to the point of disdain. Let it be said that it is a mid-level Jazzmaster (less than $1000), made in Mexico and with modifications that really depart from the American-made reissues and Crafted in Japan models. It has a 9.5″ radius and feels much different than the original Jazzmaster’s thinner spec. This new feature seems to accommodate typical rock style string bending without the normal buzzing in the high frets. It also comes with Fender’s version of the Tune-O-Matic bridge (dubbed Adjusto-Matic) – a welcome mod in that it minimizes string slippage and makes bridge height adjustment incredibly easy.  This new bridge is also featured in the J. Mascis, Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore models as well as countless customized JMs. But what really chaps most purists is the new location of the tremolo — much closer to the bridge than normal. This supposedly increases the string angle and sustain. Works for me. This also is the only discernible visual feature that distinguishes the Classic Player from typical Jazzmasters.

The sound? Hotter, twangier  P-90s add a versatility to the tone (more modern, if you will) with a much warmer sounding neck pup setting. Definitely a bit more sustain… There are times when I hear Ira Kaplan from this guitar – but maybe its my Super Reverb… Someone, somewhere wrote “This is not your grandfather’s or grandmother’s Jazzmaster!” For me, it’s a new type of Jazzmaster, more versatile and nothing to sneeze at. Recommended to open-minded JM lovers…