More Practice Amps !?!?!?

This summer, I did fairly extensive web and hands-on research to find the best practice amp for my needs. Ironically, the practice amp I decided on was an Ibanez Valbee. I had my eye on one of these years ago, but didn’t bite. However you can get these for about 6000 yen now, much less than they were back then. After modding it, I love the way it sounds, even at volumes which in theory shouldn’t disturb the neighbors (though I secretly suspect it is being reminded a non-Japanese lives next-door that really bothers them.) Unfortunately, at such low levels, the amp’s humming and buzzing even in clean mode is much harder to ignore. So in spite of the various mods I’ve made, the amp’s basic functionality is severely compromised.

My latest attempt to fix the problem by using additional capacitors to check for bad ones failed, confounding me. Right now an electronic engineer in Sweeden who is also a fan of the amp is also helping me to diagnose the problem. After ruling out the preamp, ground  and transformer as the source of the noise, he thinks it’s the tube bias, or maybe even loose rectifier diodes. However, I’m starting to noticed that spending more time messing with things I don’t understand (circuits), is taking time away from something I do understand: playing. Because my goal is to enjoy myself, I’m back in the market for another amp. I still love the valbee, but this amp is better for high-gain. For cleans, I might needs something else like a VOX VT20+ or a Blackstar HT-1R.

The VOX was highly recommended by a pro guitarist from New Zealand I met over the summer who used to work for Ibanez. I just missed an auction for one for starting at 5000 yen, because the aesthetic made me hesitate. The truth is it looks like a lot of fun, but my prejudice against mainstream, mass produced gear for the masses is holding me back. Then again, I’m not on a boutique or rare-vintage budget. Amps like the VT20 were made for amateurs like me, so I should be grateful and buy one. Slightly more appealing is the all-tube Blackstar HT-1R, which costs a bit more. I’ve tried this in stores and wasn’t disappointed with the sound. Actually, I was rather impressed.

Both of these amps also offer an 8″ speaker, built in reverb and speaker emulation and other bells and whistles which the Valbee does not. The only thing the Valbee can offer is real power-tube distortion and a cooler looking cabinet. So what. The other two use pre-amp tubes to simulate power tubes, and nobody’s looking anyway. And I’m free to beautify the amp as I like, right? So now that we’ve sorted out that issue, the only obstacle now is the money, which isn’t really an obstacle either. In conclusion, if the amp is stopping you from PLAYING, something is very wrong. However, there’s nothing wrong with having side-projects to learn from, either. Right now I have about seven projects on my work bench, including the Valbee. Only the Valbee is inhibiting me, though.

Stripped Screw Holes

Spring EnvyWank bar induced tuning instability shouldn’t be a problem for guitar-players anymore, unless of course the player is a moron like I am. Last weekend, I got a set of Gotoh Power Springs for $6, hoping they would make the G&L Dual-Fulcrum vibrato bridge more stable, and perhaps even enhance the tone of the guitar. A bit shorter and narrower, the Gotoh’s certainly looked nicer than the dull and slightly rusted stock springs (see photo.)

After putting them in and re-tightening, the bridge plate was flush with the body with the claw at about the same position as it was with the old springs. Even after moving it back a few inches, it was still not even close to parallel with the top, so I removed the center spring. The action on the wank bar feels a lot spongier now with just the two Power Springs. Tuning it felt more stable, but that could be just my imagination, because I rewound the strings so that they are lower and closer together on the peg.

Unfortunately, the wood in on of the tremolo claw-screws was stripped, and screw started to slip out of it’s hole! Obviously this made any improvement in tuning stability meaningless… This has been a problem since over-tightening the claw-screws years ago. A repair guy filled it in with wood glue, but this didn’t quite do the trick. So I got a tube of wood putty at my local hardware store (another $6) but the tube was too fat for the tremolo cavity. It was a good thing I was listening to jazz, because I had to improvise a way of getting the nozzle flush against the stripped hole.The solution: a delivery device fashioned from 3cm of drinking straw, followed by a wooden yakitori skewer to stuff the stuff way down in the hole. While waiting for it to dry, I read the package, and noted this particular product is intended for screws 12mm long anchoring up to 16kg. A tremolo claw screw is about 4omm long, and who knows what the Power Springs will do it. So far it’s holding, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I have to squeeze more wood jizm in there again after another major adjustment to the springs.

It’s a bit ironic that I bought these springs to avoid paying my local repair guy to fill in the old holes so he can drill new new ones in the guitar for a standard Fender-style claw that will let me use up to five-springs as I mentioned in my earlier post.  Ultimately though, it looks like that would still be the most comprehensive solution. If and when that day comes, I think I will get a set of Raw Vintage Tremolo Springs. It never occurred to me in 20 years of playing this guitar that the springs could have any affect on performance, but this is an easy and affordable mod that makes playing more fun…unless you’ve stripped your screw holes…

So wanking the bar up/down a whole-step is definitely easier now, and the guitar stays in tune, but the low-E and G-strings still come up sharp if you push the bar down as far as it can go. I hear a ping at the saddle, and knock at at the bridge which is probably the sound of blades slipping off the studs. I guess the felt washers under the blades are supposed to mitigate this, but they’ve been looking depressed for years. It occurs to me as I’m writing about this they could stand to be replaced, too. It’s up to me to balance the bridge height, saddle height, intonation and spring tension which is still a pain in the ass. Hopefully, a the set of Schaller Locking Tuners I ordered will solve the problem so I don’t waste time looking for a perfectly balanced set-up which probably doesn’t exist.

ARIA AWV-100 Wah/Volume

Second of my stupid gear purchases for 2013 is a plastic wah/volume pedal made by Aria. Stupid not because it sounds bad, but because there were two auctions on Yahoo! and I bid on the cheaper one without the AC adapter jack. My initial gratitude at finding an undead battery inside was quickly evaporated when the plastic battery snap cracked. Fortunately, it still works though!

A look inside reveals that this is an inductor based wah — no op amps. First impressions are good. The sweep is wide and balanced, not harsh on top or thin on the bottom. However sweep is not particularly smooth, which is a pity because the range of the treadle is long but the W100K pot seems to do nothing for about half its rotation. I put some pads on the back which I originally bought for my old Vox to reduce the pedal travel but it doesn’t help much. Adjusting the orientation of the pot makes the top end of its range useless, so replacing the pot with a different taper is a priority.

Switching between wah/volume modes is almost too easy since it not require a lot pressure on the switch, but this pedal is NOT TRUE BYPASS. No sound comes out without a battery inside. Does it suck tone? Kinda. I noticed a sudden boost in volume when I put my weight on the pedal when it’s all the way forward. I thought it might be the pot, but I opened it up and found it was the switch. The plunger moves around slightly inside the shaft, which could be the cause, but it could be trouble replacing this tiny switch. Even so, the tone seems darker but fatter. Maybe the transistors are giving the guitar a nice fet… er, fat boost?

By far the most appealing features of this box is it’s weight. To compare against my Budwah, I picked both pedals up and dropped them from the second story veranda. The Budwah fatally injured a pedestrian, while the Aria floated down next to some crows without disturbing them. Seriously, it’s so light I had to use my wife’s kitchen scale to measure it, whereas my Budwah requires the bathroom scale. How light? About half a kilogram with battery, which makes a big difference to my shoulder when I’m carrying in a pedal board across Tokyo on trains and up stairs.

Even with no AC adapter, it seems to work fine even with a half dead battery, though there is a bit of distortion. Otherwise the headroom seems the same or better than my Budda. The volume mode is less satisfying. It’s good for tremolo effects and muting if I switch guitars, but lousy for swells which is really why I wanted a volume pedal. Maybe a new pot, switch and a few circuit mods can turn this toy into a nice piece of kit.

Actually Playing the Guitar

Tinkering with guitar, amps and pedals without actually being able to play a song from start to finish on them is a bit pathetic. So this three-day weekend I made sure to get lots of actual playing in, on top of messing around my G&L’s tremolo and new wah/volume pedal. So what did I play?

  • Turn It Out (Soulive): I’ve been afraid to listen to this band or anything with a B3 since…the incident, but something inspired me to play this turnaround-like tune which is  probably Soulive’s jazziest. A few years ago, I struggled with the A-melody and chords on the bridge, but not only did I get it this time, I was able to play it together with chords. Isolating the melody and bass, and then building chords between those is really the best way to work things out by ear. Then you can really the relationship between the melody and harmony. Even if there’s no melody, like in the tag, I just listen for the top note, and treat that as the melody. Thinking about it that way, I can do the reverse: add (or substitute) chords where there are none. More important than the harmony is the vibe, though. This weekend I listened to the version from their first album on Youtube, which I had never heard before.
  • Ready & Able (GBQ): Last week I figured out bits of Benson’s approach to comping rhythm changes. Inspired by my success with Turn It Out, I went back to try and work out a fingering to play the head fluidly. It turns out that it works a lot better down in 6th position, than higher up the neck.
  • Alive! (Grant Green): I just played along with this while trying to debug my new volume pedal. Kras is right: “Grant Green was the man.”  I can pretty much play anything this guy played with minimal effort, but so what? Even with the same band and tunes, I wouldn’t sound as good as he does on those albums. The thing about Grant Green is that I really enjoy listening to his albums, more than just his guitar playing. I can’t say that for Benson or Pat Martino.
  • Chord-Melody Phrases for Guitar (Ron Eschete): I set the iPod to shuffle mode, and tried whichever example played. There is some really challenging stuff in this book, like chords that stretch across  6 frets and five strings. This book is on indefinite loan from my friend from Peter Montgomery, and the material complements the stuff in Robert Conti’s book on Intros/Endings/Turnarounds which I had loaned him very well. This isn’t exactly a coincidence. Peter has lots of books, but this is the only one I’ve borrowed, as it addresses an area of my playing which I desperately want to improve.

Because my G&L was out of commission for most of the weekend due to tremolo issues, I didn’t really play any rock but heard some King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple on the radio at dinner which inspired me to play with my new fuzz a but more as soon as I get the chance.

Mo’ Betta Wanking

The urge to do some serious wanking on my G&L Legacy has raised the age-old problem of keeping the guitar in tune, specifically the low-E and G-strings, without resorting to a locking nut. Here’s a list of possible modifications I’m considering, and will post about in the future:

  1. String-windings: Not what most usually comes to mind when you say “modification” but the strings are actually the most important component(s) of the guitar. Before I invest any money into the parts below, I’m going to use my cutter, string-winder and collection of old strings to see if the number of windings around the tuning post has any affect on tuning stability. It occurred to me that I’m wrapping it too many times, resulting in a sharp angle across the nut, OR perhaps I’m not wrapping it enough. To quote Vernon Reid, “Guitars are funny beasts,” so instead of following any one repair guy’s advice, I just have to see what works with my somewhat unique setup.
  2. Tremolo Springs: To improve tuning stability, I wanted to add another spring or two. However one of the unique things about G&L guitars is the tremolo claw which only has hooks for three springs. (see photo below) The spacing between the holes for the mounting screws is only about 27 millimeters which make it impossible to replace it with standard OEM strat parts without drilling new holes. F’K that…I found something called Gotoh Power Springs which are thicker and should provide more tension. They’re only about $7 so I went ahead and ordered a set of three.
  3. Teflon tape trick: According to the G&L discussion page, wrapping the bridge studs with teflon tape improves tuning stability. If you don’t know what this is (like I didn’t), it looks like plumbers probably use this to wrap metal pipe joints so the don’t leak, so I’m going to take a trip to my local hardware store. I wonder how this will affect tone and sustain, though?
  4. New nut: Replacing the stock plastic nut is something I’ve been considering since before I even bought the guitar 20 years ago, but every repair guy has talked me out of it. I’ve since had it replaced and slotted with a new plastic nut by a professional, so I don’t think this is going to make much difference in terms of tuning stability, but it might improve the tone of the upper strings. Graphtech TUSQ nuts with pre-cut slots is a cheap mod I might even be able to do myself, though it could make things worse. G&L is putting bone nuts on their guitars now, so it’s probably worth it to have it cut by a pro.
  5. Schaller Locking Tuners: These are offered as an upgrade by G&L, and will probably do more to improve stability than any of the mods above, so it should be my first mod, but a set of these is about $100, and the G&L compatible type (M6 6-inline Left Pin) is not easy to find here in Japan.Image

Cable Criteria

The most important factors to consider when choosing a guitar cable:

  1. Plug: S (straight) or L (right-angle)? Depending on the jack of the guitar, this makes a big difference. The wrong plug could wind up being destroyed or destroying the guitar, or might not even fit in the jack of your Strat or Tele.
  2. Length: Are you going to play on a big stage or in a small room?  Getting tangled up in long cables can be  a nuisance and bad for the cables, too. This is why I avoid the curly variety, as cool as they look. +/- 3 meters is a good rule of thumb for me.
  3. COST: Never pay more than $25 for a cable unless it looks really cool. (see below)
  4. Color: Choose a color that matches your guitar or clothes; preferably both.This applies to the plugs, too. For example, if you have an Ibanez GB-10 with brass hardware, it might be worth it to get that Monster Jazz cable. It was worth it for me, until it suddenly died. (see #3) Or maybe you want something that stands out on stage, or is color coded to help you organize your signal flow. Aesthetics can be useful, even if you aren’t a fashionista.
  5. Capacitance: NOT.  I couldn’t care less about it because the fact is that elements beyond your control like old strings, the sound of the room and even the density of air can all  rob your sound of high-frequencies.”All the more reason to get an expensive cable to preserve it!” says the cable maker, ignoring the fact that your electric guitar probably already has at least one capacitor inside (that’s a component that induces capacitance, as you might have guessed). That capacitor is there to reduce high frequencies, which is exactly what the opposite of what the expensive cable is supposed to be doing. So instead of buying a $60 cable, why not just replace the capacitor in your guitar with a lower value which would cost you a small fraction of a high-end cable?  If the guitar sounds too bright, you can rotate the tone-knob to tame the brightness, just like you do t0 the lights in your house with a dimmer when you feel like makin’ love. That’s what the capacitor-driven tone-control is there to do for you. Use it to loose it. (or get a cheap cable to do it for you if you’re really lazy.) Seriously, fuck capacitance. Worry about the sound of your picking technique instead.

Cost/Performance Study

After celebrating Christmas with my family this year, it occurred to me that one can get a Behringer or Modtone stomp box for about as much

ibanez-soundtank_ad1992_001or LESS than the cost of a fancy toy car, jet or train for a 6-year old. The similarity doesn’t stop at cost. Same as futuristic cars, trains and robots I got for my sons, pedals can be linked together for even more fun and insanity. And a stomp box is usually about the same size as a kid’s toy, too. A particularly creative Ibanez Soundtank advertisement from the 90s, depicting their line of budget stomp boxes as tiny, futuristic battle tanks proves that I’m not the only one who equates stomp boxes are toys. More and more I am turning to budget boxes like that because I don’t play pro anymore, and just want to have fun. So I find myself on the hunt for pedals like the Nobels ODR-1, Digitech Bad Monkey and the Aria chorus pedals I bought last week.

However, I do still have a few mid-market boutique pedals on my board, so I decided to do a cost/performance analysis of my pedal collection to see if these expensive pedals were worth it.

  1. Barber Tone-Press RED: This is only pedal that could do EXACTLY what I need: mix the dry signal back in to preserve the attack. So in principle, cost/performance isn’t really applicable, because cost is no object. Actually, compared to the more expensive Wampler pedal which offer clean blend, this is a better value. Then I replaced it with a limited run RED Tonepress which somewhat reduces it’s value of cost to performance because I confess my interest was mostly cosmetic in nature, not the only very slightly improved output and clarity.
  2. Budda Budwah: An expensive way when considering it’s just a custom Vox/Dunlop wah with a handmade inductor and other minor tweaks, but like the Tonepress, this is the only wah I found that gives me the sweep and clarity to get the sound of the first two bars of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Sweet. Again C/P isn’t really applicable because you can’t put a price on perfection. However like the Tonepress, this more affordable than the RMC or Fulltone ways.  It’s not perfect, but it’s possible that any problems I experienced with tone or volume were operator error (e.g.placement, pot-adjustment, etc.)
  3. RE-J Project (Analog Man) Boss DD-3: After modifications, an early “big-chip” version costs about as much or more than the Robot Factory Space Case (after my  25% bulk discount) which actually sounds better. The DD-3 does offer other many advantages like a smaller footprint, ease-of-use, and battery power. However the vintage stock unit have their own desirable “digilog” character. Just modding the direct out jack for EXP control would have been enough for my needs, so the cost exceeds the performance.
  4. Nobles ODR-1: In terms of cost, there are few options cheaper than this, at least in Japan where players are still not hip to it. However in terms of actual performance, it leaves a few things to be desired. This is not really a good blues overdrive for a strat’s neck pickup by itself. It’s best as clean boost or near-clean boost  in front of a good tube amp, but it actually doesn’t have a really high output at low-gain. While versatile, understanding the interaction between the three controls is not really intuitive, and adjusting one means adjusting the other two. That it powers up engaged is also a pain in the ass. For a few dollars more, I could get a Bad Monkey which is a better value.
  5. Boss RC-3: Drums patterns, stereo-processing, aux inputs, demo tracks, external control, save/undo functions, USB connectivity, count-ins, and more sampling time that you could ever use all inside an attractive sparkle wine-red Boss compact chassis make this truly exceptional value…for 20000 yen? Does this really offer that much more features than the older RC-2? And for a few dollars more, would the RC-20 or RC-30 be a better value? The answer is YES. The RC-2 does not have a USB port, or even a tenth of the memory of the RC-3. At about 2x the cost of a used RC-2, the RC-3 offers far more than twice the performance. Meanwhile the larger versions take up too much space on a pedal board. However, this begs the question: Does this kind of device even belong on a pedal board? If you don’t have a band behind you, the answer is YES.
  6. Guyatone WR-2: Before Behringer, Modtone and Digitech started offering budget pedals, Guyatone was a charming alternative to more expensive Boss and Ibanez pedals which dominated shelf and catalog space. Now out of production, some of these have a just enough vintage value to make them more expensive than their would-be competitors. Guyatone has since left the low-end market to them in favour of upper market designs aimed at pros. This pedal is one of these. Like many budget pedals, it sounds great with the right guitar and amp, but the limited controls limit its compatibility. This is especially true for an envelope filter. The great thing about Guyatone is that you can squeeze them onto a crowded pedalboard, but they’re too light to stay put. Also, changing the battery is risky business, because if you destroy the rubber ring holding the base together, you can get a replacement. So in conclusion, this really is a case of  “you get what you pay for.”

Looking at the results of the c/p analysis above, it would seem that the more expensive pedals (1 & 2) offer better cost performance than budget pedals (4&6). Meawhile, the Boss pedals (3&5) would seem to offer even better value than these, but only if purchased stock. An important distinction here is that the Boss pedals I use are multi-mode digital pedals. If I did a c/p analysis of a popular distortion of chorus pedal, I doubt it would be much better than a cheaper Guyatone or Nobels pedal (which aren’t that cheap anymore.)

For my next post, I will do a supplementary c/p analysis of some more pedals in my collection which are only on my board part-time, like the BOSS PS-5, PQ-4 and one-of-a-kind Robot Factory Ubberat.