New Mod Project: GB-10 Bridge

One of the great things about the Ibanez GB-10 is its unique and almost monolithic design. Unlike a strat, it really doesn’t want to be modified. Good luck finding replacement parts for those floating pickups, brass zero-fret and adjustable tailpiece. Even the pots are wrapped in plastic bags to keep the dust out. These features are so unique, it seems a waste to make the redundant. So almost any mod you want to make to this guitar would cost you dearly…except the bridge.

In spite of Ibanez’s solid realisation of George Benson’s brilliant custom design, the guitar is not perfect. For some more modern music, you find yourself wanting a bit more sustain and bite. Turnaround for some more mainstream jazz, and it feels you could use a bit more depth and woodiness. The only easy options you really have to mod the tone are:

  1. Strings: Flat or wound, 12s or heavier for jazz, 11s for blues and R&B.
  2. Amplification: Best through a Polytone or Fender Twin, IMHO. Sometimes a little bit of compression or clean boost helps, too.
  3. Bridge and Tailpiece: In addition to using the tailpiece to adjust the pressure of the bridge on the top, an OEM ABR bridge can literally be a drop-in replacement part.

Re #3, I was fortunately enough to have a cheap ABR bridge lying around which had been cut for a different guitar. It fit the GB-10’s wooden base, so I gave it a try. Obviously it the intonation, and some chords sounded a bit better. Sustain was a bit better, too. However, the guitar seemed to loose a little depth and woodiness. Plain strings sounded a bit coarse, and the lower strings sounded a bit dull. The G-string wasn’t as resonant, meaning I had to use a .26 to get the top moving.

To reclaim some of the tone without sacrificing the sustain or intonation, I want to try different bridge materials. Brass is the obvious first choice, having a reputation as the most resonant metal. However, there are other options as well, like nylon saddles or graphite saddles. Harder materials like steel and titanium seem a bit less of an appealing option, but then again, a bit of extra high end might be just what is needed for such a dark sounding guitar.

I don’t know what the ABR bridge I have on the guitar now is made out of, but because it was so cheap ($25), I guess it’s zinc. Some of the black plating on the saddles has been rubbed off when the slots were cut, and the material underneath is dull gray like original tremolo block in my G&L Legacy — not colorful like brass, or shiny like steel. A brass or gold bridge would match the other hardware on the guitar, too. However, the guitar is almost 30 years old, and a lot of the gold plating has faded or chipped off, so a “distressed” or “aged” bridge might be the way to go.

VOX “Valvetronix” VT20+

In 8th grade, I though the coolest amp in the world was a VOX AC/30 Top Boost reissue. In the 12th grade, I thought my chrome Vox V847 Wah-wah pedal was way cooler than the black Dunlop Crybaby that everyone had.  However, when a pro-guitarist recommended a Vox VT20+ modelling hybrid amp, I had doubts because the market is saturated with their products now, so I don’t associate the brand with my heroes like Beatles, Brian May or Miles Davis anymore.

Still, this amp has a Power Level control which reduces the output down from 30 watts to 1 so it won’t piss off my nay-bores like my Mesa/Boogies did, PLUS built-in-effects and other  little details like 1/8″ jacks for headphones and aux input make it ideal for home practice, too. It even has a built-in tuner which is great for me because my Roland TU-80 broke recently. Will all this for just over $100, this amp is an incredible value.

All these built-in features are not really necessary for me, but they do mean less time worrying about extra gear and connections when you just want to start playing right away just like a purely analog amp. Eventually, my curiosity eventually gave into the temptation to try all of the amp models and effects, and of course this can be a lot of fun. The advanced functions are not a particular intuitive because the functions of the various buttons next to them can be confusing. Next to the amp model selector, there is button to modify the voice, and a green/orange/red LED to indicate this. Most of the time the green is the lowest gain, orange is medium, and red is highest, but this is not always the case (see below.) The Preset button choices (Basic/Effect/Song) are even more misleading. You have to read the manual to know what you’re supposed to be hearing, but fortunately you can easily ignore it by holding the button to enter Manual mode, as I did initially. Then storing those settings is as easy as saving your favorite radio stations on your car stereo.

Another example of counter-intuitive function is the Tap-tempo button which also changes the parameter of the Modulation/Delay effect if you hold it down. Then the there’s the label for the Noise Gate on the single knob for the Pedal effect, but it’s not clear how to to use this. These functions can be ignored, too, but this amp has THREE volume controls: Volume, Master and Power Level. After reading the manual, I learned that Master affects the tube’s output and affect on the sound. Power Level doesn’t affect the level when headphones are plugged in, and settings for both aren’t saved in presets. You can save the Volume setting in presets which is good since the amp models do have a wide range of Gain.

Some of the amp models are truly outstanding. Their voices are convincing, and they react to changes to the guitar’s controls. The tone controls react like an amp would, too. For example, turning up the mids will push the amp into overdrive for some models the same as my Mesa Boogie F-50 did. The most important amp model is the Clean/Red setting, which is just a flat preamp. This is probably there to make the most of the (lame) Acoustic simulator effect let’s you hear what the amp’s other components, like the speakers and “Valve Reactor” sound like WITHOUT the digital models. It sounds pretty unimpressive, which just goes to prove how good the models are.

After playing it at home for a few weeks, I finally trialled it in the studio with a drummer. At 20 watts or higher, it’s just enough power for a rehearsal. However the amp does get noisy at those levels. I did not test for clean volume at those levels, though. The models don’t sound as balanced at higher volumes, but it never sounds bad. Fortunately, the amp reacts to my own pedals very naturally. My Barber Tonepress fatted it up the same way it does any amp, and the Ubberrat pushed the models into distortion beautifully.

As for the built-in effects, the manuals description of these and the effects are very descriptive without actually mentioning the models they pay homage, and have to get (or pay for) permission to use another company’s registered trademark. This almost makes the manual fun to read, except for the vague and condescending bits which look like they were poorly translated from Japanese. They all sound adequate and convincing, but lack character as you’d expect.

With “so many great models to choose from,” it is tempting to try to use them all to get your money’s worth, but my experience with other modelling amps has taught me that you even if you only find one or two that you really like, you are still getting your money’s worth because you’re already paying less than you would for one amp. This is what I learned from using the Korg Pandora and Tech21 Trademark 60. Plus the models for my favorite effects like auto-wah, overdrive, delay, and reverb are good enough. If you factor in this and the other practice support functions, I definitely got my money’s worth.

Upgrading Ben’s Black Bass

Bass is the bigger half-brother of the electric guitar. Thanks to (Sir) Paul McCartney, and later James Jamerrson, Jaco Pastorius and Ron Carter, I’ve always been very interested in the bass. I love the way it sounds, the deceptively simplicity of it’s technique, and the subtle but essential position it has in modern music. The only reason I don’t play it more is because guitar is usually more fun, but not always. So sometimes, more often recently, I reach for my friend’s old black Bill Lawrence bass.

It looks something like a Spector with brass hardware and a PJ pickup configuration, and plays well. However it doesn’t sound (or look) as good as the ash-bodied Fender PB-70 I bought last year so I could help my friend form a band, even after putting my favorite GHS flatwounds on it. I got rid of the PB70 when Ben unloaded his gear on me, and went back to Berlin. So one of my current projects is upgrading Ben’s black BL bass, now that I’ve made progress with some of the others.

Considering the name on the headstock, it’s surprising it doesn’t sound better, but the problem might just be that the pickups are not close enough to the strings. At least, that’s what the man himself would probably recommend first. Replacing pickups is expensive, and even if the pickups in this bass were not made buy BL, they a probably Gotoh pickups which are very good. So I’m going to get some spring-loaded pads soon to fix this issue.

However, after opening up the the control panel and seeing the massive control cavity underneath, I’ve been thinking that it would be a shame to waste all that space by not putting active electronics in there. This can also get very expensive if you want electronics made by Bartollini, EMG, Sadowsky or some other high-end cottage. If you don’t mind electronics made by Chinese teenagers, Artec makes a nice drop-in package  for about a fifth of the price.

Since I’m not really a bass player, this should be more than adequate for my needs, but the question remains, do I really need active tone controls in my bass? The argument I’m making to myself is that if the bass sounded better plugged in direct to a mixer, I would use it more. Plugging it into the Korg PX4, finding an appropriate preset and then tweaking it is pain in the ass. It’s the kind of thing that stops me from PLAYING the bass. But would you really play the bass more, Adam?

For about a week, definitely. Then what? Sell it? Sure. Upgrading it would definitely increase it’s appeal as another auction. This is the same dillema I’m having right now over a VOX VT20+. My Valbee is in pieces on my workbench where it will stay until I can complete testing of every component and circuit in the amp to get rid of the buzzing that makes it useless for home practice. So I need a new amp that I can PLAY, not just tinker with using a multitester and a soldering iron.

Actually, the VOX VT20 would be perfect for practice. I could store my settings, plug in headphones without an adapter or additional gear, and wouldn’t even have to bother plugging in my stop boxes. However, I could plug in my iPod which is something I can’t do with the Valbee. And if it the models do sound artificial and glitchy like the Korg Pandora’s REMS technology which they are probably based on, I can easily sell it, too. But the question again remains: will a new toy really inspire me to PLAY guitar, or just play with gear?

Project Progress Report

For all the people who aren’t reading this blog who aren’t wondering what the seven projects on my workbench are, I’m haven’t listed them with their current status below:

  1. Mean Green Machine Project: The “Mean Green Machine” is code-name for my G&L Legacy, and the current project is optimising it for serious wanking. Repairs to the high-E tuner are complete, and the guitar is staying in tune as well as can be expected for a guitar without a locking nut. After playing with the tremolo set up some more and evaluating the tone, I’ll have the micarta nut replaced with bone or graphite. 
  2. Lo-Noise Valbee Project: Last night I plugged the FX Loop’s  SEND jack into my mixer to check for hum. Until now I assumed the problem was confined to the power amp, but confirming it’s omnipresence suggest its actually the power supply. A superficial test of the all the components on the board didn’t reveal anything because they have to be removed first. That means I need to desolder, check and ideally replace  every component on the power supply PCB. If that doesn’t solve the problem, I’ll have to build a variable power supply to check the transformer. This is going to take a while, so I’m going to get a VOX 20 or Blackstar HT-1R head to play at home in the meantime.
  3. Aria AVW-100 Project: Last night I also replaced the ON-ON switch with a suitable replacement I found in Akihabara for about 500 yen, but the sudden and unexpected volume boost when switching hasn’t gone away. It’s almost worse. If I were to guess what’s wrong, I’d say that the wah and volume circuits are BOTH on for a second. Meanwhile, the 1800 yen Burns pot another guy sold me won’t fit because the shaft is too thick, so I’ll have to go back and search for some long split shaft mini-pots. For now, I’m giving up on this, and am considering selling it.
  4. AKG K141 Studio Headphone Repair: Just as I made my decision to get 3 meters of cable from a vendor in Akihabara, I realised that I would need a stopper sleeve for the new cable. This is a phallic T-shaped part that wraps around the cable, and holds it inside outer shell. Too lazy and hungry to make the rounds again, I also realised that  I could just make an incision in the stopper sleeve with an X-acto knife, so I could wrap this part around the new cable. Then I realised that if I could do that, I could cut some insulation off the old cable and just reuse it. DUH!!! Easier said than done, though. The three leads inside the headphone cable were glued together which was reassuring because it meant I couldn’t have fucked the cable strands up too badly, but it also meant that I had to use a cigarette lighter to melt the substance glueing them together. Little spots of blue grease appeared on the leads, and loosened them up enough to get my X-acto knife between them, and use the dull edge to split them up. I think I can remember the wiring, but want to confirm first. Meanwhile, I’m still amazed at my own failure to see this solution to the problem until the very moment I spend money on it.
  5. Sony Speaker Box Project: The first step in this project is to dismantle my Sony headphones and measure the dimensions of the driver. However, I want to wait until the repairs above are complete before canibalizing my only functioning pair of cans. So the project is still in the planning and consideration stage.
  6. Custom Tubescreamer Project: As one of the component technologies and testbeds for making my own personalised Tubescreamer, I acquired a Mid-Booster kit from Akihabara well over a year ago. So far, all I’ve done is analyse the circuit extensively, and try to assemble it on a bread board without a proper schematic. However on my last trip, I found pre-drilled enclosures for about 1500 yen, which I plan to get on my next trip. This project is not a priority, and I may just decide to use the parts in the kit for a completely different circuit, like a homemade Barber Silver LTD.
  7. LM386 Perqiue Blend Project: Impressed but not totally satisfied with the Smokey HI-GAIN orignal, I got a pair of LM386 ICs ,and have been saving my empty packs of the black-label American Spirit Perique Blend cigarrettes to make my own which will have better clean sounds. The hard part will be selecting a good 2″ speaker, but I found several options on my last trip to Akihabara. The trick will be to make a switching system to audition different speakers.  Will also need to get a glue gun for this project.