A Dirty Old Guitarist’s Session

Jazz standards are not what I had in mind after the last week’s two sessions, but at least all the tunes that got called were tunes I actually knew, like Stella By Starlight, and There Will Never Be Another You, Black Orpheus, and All of Me (thanks Paul McCartney). Of course I forgot some of the changes, but not the melody. So I’ve gotta thank my former (tor)mentor  for beating the importance of the melody into my head. There were four other guitarists, three drummers, a vocalist, and one house-bassist holding it down. No pianos or horns, so  it felt like a jazz guitar class. Again, I was not the best or the worst there, but I was definitely the only one who played like me, and my GB-10 had the fattest, warmest tone.

In spite of my initial disappointment at playing old standards instead of The Chicken, it was a good night. The place was near Kinshicho station which is just over the border between Chiba and Tokyo, making it a bit closer to home. It was a bit hard to find in among the stacks of hostess clubs, and I rode the elevator up with an adorable little Philipino girl and her Dad who got off at one of those. My obligatory glass of red wine was very nice, and the walls were covered with 60s/70s memorabilia, so I could wander around gazing at pictures of old Japanese pop groups, movie posters and even household appliances while the other guys played, instead of just sitting at a table fidgeting or smoking. But of course it’s the customers that give a bar it’s character.

Sitting up in the front was the cutest Japanese jazz guitar girl I’ve ever seen. She could play, too. In the back, a trio of older jazzers. One of them (the best) gave me his card, and at the top above his name, it said, “A Dirty Old Guitarist.” I couldn’t stop laughing. He proudly told me that his card also got some laughs from Marlena Shaw when she was last in Japan. (Incidentally, Marlena Shaw is BIG in Japan, in jazz/funk/R&B circles.) I also had a long chat with a drummer about unemployment and rural depopulation, public health care, the downside of curing cancer, why Brazilian rosewood is banned as import to Japan, and of course the construction of cymbals.

I was seriously thinking of leaving early, but I stayed until the end. I’d probably go back, too. Even though I haven’t had any desire to play standards for almost a year now, once in a while I guess it’s nice to remind myself that I can actually play real jazz (e.g. improvise something coherent based on standard chord changes with liberal harmonic, rhythmic and articulative embellishment) after years of struggling with it, and then let it go. I’m sure I’ll come back to it seriously when I become a dirty old guitarist myself.  Right now, I want to make the most of my few remaining years as a sexy, sensitive, 30-something guitarist.

ARTEC QTB Onboard Booster

The idea of a battery dying or going dead in the middle of a performance is enough of a reason that most guitarist think active electronics are a terrible idea. Besides the impractical logistics of unscrewing your pickguard in the the middle of a gig, the conventional wisdom is  that the guitar gods of the 60s didn’t have active electronics, than we don’t either. Elder pickup guru Bill Lawrence was quoted as saying “Batteries belong in flashlights.” However the reality is that bassists and acoustic guitarists use active systems all the time, and so do heros like Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and BB King, not to mention lords of metal like Metallica and Zack Wylde. So why do we electric guitarist still shy from them?

Some time ago, I became interested in the idea of an on-board buffer to save space on my pedal board. There is really no way to easy way to mount such a device inside my GB-10, and I never really felt it was necessary with my G&L Legacy’s control circuit. So I got a Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer. However in my search, I found the Guitar Fetish website. After months of browsing, and finally  I decided that I needed a solo boost for jam session where setting up pedals on stage is awkward and kind of embarrassing. However when I tried ordering, they wanted me to fax a copy of my credit card an ID. Not wanting to be bothered, I found the same part here in Japan sold under the Artec brand for the same price.

The circuit I ordered is the QTB, which is a rotary switch providing +3, +14 or +20db of clean boost, which is enough to overdrive any amp. They also make an onboard distortion circuit for which I had zero expectations, but how I would have wished for one of those on the first electric guitar I got when I was 11 years old. The mid-boost circuits the make I imagined would just make the sound muddy and inarticulate. The QTB also colors the tone slightly. There seem to be a little less highs and lows, kind of like a tube-screamer. Rumors that these cheap Chinese preamps are noisy are exaggerated. In the buffer setting (no boost), there is no additional noise. At the 20db setting, extra noise is inevitable.

Installing it was a bit of a challenge, but I took my time and completed the procedure in about 3 hours with only one mistake which I noticed early on fortunately.  I was afraid there would not  be room for the battery and had to put it in between the neck and middle pickups with some tape to hold in in place. Also, the stereo jack required for operation is a bit of a squeeze in the jack cavity, but it doesn’t make any popping noises when plugging in and turning on. The biggest challenge was mounting the control pot. The shaft was slightly narrower than standard sized pots, and the normal nuts didn’t fit but I used one anyway to secure it snuggly onto the pickguard.

My only complaint about this circuit is that I loose the tone control for the bridge pickup. I was using different values for each: 47nf for the neck and 10nf for the bridge. Since I now only have single tone control, I decided to compromise and use a 22nf cap which doesn’t really sound good on any of the pickups. So I may just try the 10nf instead. Also, I noticed that the bass cut has hardly seems to have any effect with the booster engaged. So spent the weekend messing with the wiring, mostly failing. However, at least I have a more palatable treble-bleed now with a 1000pf ceramic cap in parallel with a 150k resistor. Right now the guitar sound mellower, but the tone control does not seem work at all.

It’s also possible that the harshness is just because the pickups are too close to the strings, but if I lower them, the high-E will be weak. So I’m actually considering swapping the Keystones with a $21 set of no-name Chinese pickups with 50mm spacing and about the same impedance as the original Duncans. As for the QTB booster, I like what it does for the sound, but the operation is a bit awkward and redundant. That’s what pedals are for, right? A better strategy would be just to play the guitar with the volume rolled off slightly, and then dime it for solos. This would also capitalize on the treble-bleed’s bass cutting properties. Likewise a good TS-style pedal should do that for solos, as well.


Another Soul Funk Session

Two soul/funk sessions in a week reinforced why I don’t like jam session anymore. There was plenty to compare for both sessions, but little to contrast. The cost was about the same. The access was about the same. The level of the players was about the same, and that is very good but also very redundant. Three of the seven guitarists could probably outplay me. I’d recommend them for a professional gig before I’d recommend myself, but they all sounded just like each other. They all even played strats. Two more were trying to play outside their genre of specialisation, but very nice guys. One of them played a strat. One more kid played a nice bossa nova on a strat, but missed the ending. So I was glad I brought my modded GB-10 instead of my G&L. All strat players were a bit envious of the fat and round tones I got out of those little practice amps. 

This time, I brought charts I made for my old band. The one of the session hosts saw my charts, and offered to take them to the convenience store to make copies for everyone for which I was very grateful. Of the five or so tunes, he chose Valdez in the Country. It went ok until the other guitarist (another session host) started to play a strange vamp to end the song. Was he playing the George Benson version? Eventually I got his attention, and shook my head. That didn’t stop him, but my cutting did. When the drummer stopped, I simply played louder and stronger, thus turning the ending into a break, and we vamped out over the correct changes. So twice this week, a tune I called was derailed by a house band musician who should have some idea about how a classic tune from the soul/funk/R&B cannon of the 70s should sound, but didn’t.

The sax player on the stand asked me about my chart afterwards, so I gave him a copy. Meanwhile, the little guitarist on the stand stayed behind to tell everyone how to play the next song. Spending as much time as he did explaining how to play a tune almost seems like a necessary evil, but not not really in the spirit of a jam session. But then again, these aren’t really jam session — not in a classic sense, anyway. These are close to the college clubs/circles at a Japanese university, which makes sense since most of the participants are students, and that also explains why they’re so good, yet so clueless about fundamentals like dynamics, space and listening. For example, there was a great singer named Minori, but you couldn’t hear her tribute to Alicia Keys because the kid playing alto was playing over her. I told the session host about the mic volume, but he did nothing. So I did something.

Besides Minori, there were some really good piano players and bassists. I hit it off  with one of them who is closer to me age, speaks fluent English, and has some mutual friends. On the stand, he started to play Chameleon, so I showed him my chart for the second part of that tune, of which I’m very proud of my transcription.  He asked to see the other charts my little folder of charts, and recognised some of the tunes like In My Wildest Dreams and Lady Day & John Coltrane. So he gave me his business card, and agreed to playing a gig this spring/summer, though he might have just been trying to get rid of me. I’ll probably go back to both sessions, but I really need to get my shit together, starting with really learning how to play The Chicken. The reason Valdez survived running aground is because I can play the tune in my sleep…almost. Still room for improvement!

Mo’ Fun with the GB-10

Fun fiddling with my GB-10 this week. Youtube browsing brought me around to the coolest James Bond theme ever, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I can’t think of any better way to break in a fuzz than playing John Barry’s brilliantly ominous line of half-notes. With my Keystone-loaded G&L , the SD Tweak Fuzz produces some very nice, thick distortion but didn’t get get the raspy, nasal nastiness you hear on 60 and early 70s recordings. It doesn’t However, with the GB-10’s hotter mini-humbuckers, I can nail that tone. I got a hint about this from watching Freddie Stone using an semi-hollow, like a lot of guys probably did back then. Something about the attack must help get this tone.

Shortly after finishing with the Tweak Fuzz, I took the GB-10 to Guitar Lab to have the new Gotoh brass/aluminium ABR bridge installed. Ito-san said he could slot the saddles in an hour and for 30% less than his initial estimate. When I came back, he let me test it through the ’68 Silverface Twin in his shop ,and the guitar sounded better than ever. Even with the bright new DR Legend flatwounds, the guitar had the round, warm jazz tone I have been seeking for over a decade, minus the sharpness and hardness I sometimes get with this guitar. It also sounded better unplugged, but everything is a trade-off. The extra-sustain and warmth comes at the cost of some funkiness and presence, but it’s still worth it.

Last night I went to a soul/funk jam session in Akasaka for a field test. On the way up the steps in the subway, I tripped and the gig bag hit the stone stairs hard, but the guitar was fine — a testament to the durability of the design. However the tuning pegs still confuse me. The repair guy mistakenly replaced the high-E string with a .013, and I tried changing it before my turn to play but didn’t get it quite right. All the players at the session were very good, but everything they played seemed rehearsed. Before playing, I was presented with a book of charts to choose from, and was delighted when I saw that Too High was in there. However, the other musicians couldn’t play more than just the vamp.

Forget trying to call anything that wasn’t in the book. I called Everybody Loves the Sunshine. The bassist on the stand knew it, but the house keyboard player didn’t, which surprised me. My friend Yosuke wanted to play Do Me, by Prince. This is easy enough, but later he said he was disappointed at the lack of effort these younger less experienced musicians put into performing. They weren’t particularly friendly either, not like the other session we usually hit. I thought maybe they were intimidated, but it was more likely just a the sort of college in-group vibe where everybody’s interests are similar, but unfortunately not really open to anything else. Still, I think I’ll go back with some of my own charts next time.


Fails stopped this weekend, and now Reason 2.5 and Live Lite 8.4 are working as Rewire slave applications to Tracktion 2. Since my job provided me with a new MacBook Air, I wanted to use Live on the faster machine.  It definitely  responds faster than on my old single-core 867Mhz Ti PB, but Tracktion 2 won’t run on the new machine (icon shows up with a slash through it), and can’t even install my copy of Reason because it doesn’t have a CD Drive…not that I’m expecting that to run either. It seems these older applications don’t like Intel processors… Tracktion 4 has just come out, but apparently the demos I downloaded have Rewire bugs.

So I tried rewire on my G5 Tower using OS 10.6.3, 10.6.8 and Tiger (10.5). With 10.6.8,  Tracktion recognized Live just once, but no sound came through. On a whim, I installed the Live 9 demo, which fucked it all up. Now all I get is an error saying something like  “Rewire device unavailable.” Reinstalling the applications and the latest version of Rewire didn’t help. With Tiger, I got the same result. However with 10.6.3, I could at least choose Live as a Rewire slave app, there was no sound. So I went back to the trusty old Powerbook with a Rewire v1.7 installer, and finally got all three apps working at the same time. Previously Rewire v.1.4 was there after I reinstalled Reason 2.5. So that worked, but not Live Lite 8.

Watching the three applications running and communicating seamlessly at the same time on my  10-year old machine was really amazing, especially considering Live Lite 8 isn’t supposed to even run on anything slower than a 1.25Ghz Intel processor. However it is still frustrating that I can’t use these apps together on either of the dual-core machines in my possession now. It was also a wake up call for how ignorant I am about Macs. Also, the solution was the obvious one, so it depresses me that it took so long for me to get around to trying it. However, it does reinforce my resolution to use the old Powerbook exclusively for music (not for games, porn, P2P and family abuse) as I had intended when I purchased it.