Posted by: kubiakl | March 14, 2012

Been A Long Time

Man, it’s been a while.  Things have been hectic with school and trying to gear the students up for state testing, so in my free time I’m either resting or playing guitar and haven’t found time to write.

New things: a Boss RC-3 Loop Station.  I bought it on a whim, and was actually searching for a reverse delay pedal (just for weird noises) when I came across a few with a short loop function.  One was the Digitech Hardwire Delay/Looper, the other was the TC Electronics Flashback.  The Digitech has a 20 second loop function and first sparked my interest, but then I realized that 20 seconds was pretty short.  The TC Electronics has a 40 second loop, which is better, but by that time I had stopped caring about the delay and just wanted the loop.  Which of course led to the Boss RC-3, a Loop Station in a stompbox sized pedal.

The rhythms are good and helpful – it can keep you on beat – and the tap tempo is a handy feature.  When I want to start a loop with drums, I’ll tap my foot to what I’m playing with the drum patterned turned down to silent.  Then I just tap the tempo button in time with my foot, turn the drums back up, and go.

So far it’s been helpful as a tool to work on my solo improvisation skills and even helped me come up with a few song ideas.  It’s nice to be able to work out an idea without having to teach it to another guitarist first – I can back myself up.  It may also come in handy eventually on a song I wrote but needs more guitars than we have band members – that’s a little down the pipeline though.

Other new things: a “wall hanger” (def. – a guitar that is unplayable and only good for decoration) vintage Framus Texan 5/296.  It was another impulsive buy off of Ebay.  No tuners were installed but for the price it seemed like a steal.  Since then I’ve taken it to North Loop Musical Exchange to see what they could do and the verdict came back “don’t bother”.  The neck block (these had bolt on necks) had separated and it just wasn’t worth putting money/effort into fixing.  So I’m back on the hunt for a 12-string.

And on that note, we went to a few different guitar shops today to look around.  12-strings are hard to find, but Austin Vintage Guitars had a few.  Nothing really sparked my interest so right now the main contender is the Martin D12X1AE.  It’s the best I’ve played yet, and I compared it to vintage and new 12s of all brands.

One guitar that did spark my interest was a Nash T-style 52.  Aside from being well built it sounded absolutely beautiful.  The pickups were Lollars… might have to look into those for my own Tele.  As nice as the Nash was I don’t want a relic style guitar, but if you’re in that market Bill does make some incredible instruments.

And on a sad note – one of my Callaham saddles on the Stratocaster got bent while I was stretching the low E string.  A new set is on it’s way from Specialty Guitars (very fast shipping, by the way).  In the meantime my old block saddles are back on and it’s amazing how much of a difference it makes.  Though they are more functional as far as mechanics go (the height adjustment screws hold better), the sound is denser and louder.  It’s not a good thing for the style I like.  If you haven’t tried bent steel saddles for your Stratocaster you might want to.

And that’s about all.  I’m still hoping to do a video review for the Rene Martinez pickups but just haven’t had the time or energy.  The Ibanez Tube Screamer and Catalinbread Formula No. 5 are working out extremely well for me, and for now the search for overdrives is ended.  Keep playing!

Posted by: kubiakl | February 15, 2012

New Additions

My pedalboard became more crowded in the last week.  The first addition came from a Catalinbread Formula No. 5, an overdrive based around the Fender Tweed sounds (like the 5E3 amp).  It’s a warm overdrive that has some snarl to it – it will clean up moderately with the volume rolled back but it likes to growl.  It’s not as hairy as the MJM London Fuzz but it’s good for that dirty, greasy blues sound.  In fact it’s my favorite pedal now and almost always on when I play.  I like having that tweed tone but with some reverb from the Blues Junior.

The other addition was an Ibanez TS9 30th Anniversary edition.  My Guyatone Micro OD developed an issue where it would scream when touched and make all kinds of horrible sounds, so it had to go.  But since it made my fuzz work so much better just by being placed before it I needed something similar to replace it.  I figured another non-true bypass overdrive would be the ticket.  It is.

Now it’s kind of strange that I’ve been playing guitar for over a decade and never owned a version of the (arguably) most popular overdrive pedal around.  A good majority of the overdrives you see are clones and mods of the Tube Screamer circuit.  Just about every guitar player has owned one at some point.  But I’m ornery – that was exactly the reason I avoided the Ibanez.  That and the Stevie Ray connection.  It was his favored overdrive and I’ve consciously avoided his tone for two reasons.  One is that I don’t have the ability to sound like him.  And two, so many guitarists (especially Texans) try to cop that tone.  Some succeed better than others but all fall short.  So I steered clear.

Which was stupid – the Tube Screamer doesn’t make you sound like SRV.  It’s just a smooth overdrive with a nice musical range.  Whenever I need to clean up the sound and the Formula No. 5 is too much I use the TS9.  I’m sure someone more able and willing could get a facsimile of the Stevie Ray sound out of it but I like it for what it is – a nice way to color the sound without too much gain.

The 30th Anniversary edition has the same circuitry as a standard TS9 but instead of the seasick green paint job they gave it a nice shiny electroplated green exterior.  The other difference (and honestly, major selling point for me) is the LED.  TS9 and TS 808 models come with an extremely dim red LED and it’s hard to tell when they’re engaged.  Analog Mike (www.analogman.com) offers modded Tube Screamers with brighter LEDs, but the 30th Anniversary Edition comes with a nice bright green light.

So now my signal path goes:  Fulltone Mini Deja Vibe -> Visual Sound Route 66 OD/comp -> Ibanez TS9 -> MJM London Fuzz -> Catalinbread Formula No. 5 -> CAE Wah -> Danelectro Cool Cat Tremolo -> Fender Blues Junior.  It’s crowded, but gives me a nice range of sounds that are all beautiful.  I can go from clean and shimmery (rarely used) to slight overdrive to greasy blues and all the way to full blown fuzz.  Each pedal reacts well with the others and can stack easily for even more tonal variety.

For now I’m pretty happy.  At some point you should see a video review of the Rene Martinez pickups on here, but time has been tight lately.  Now I’m going to go enjoy my new sounds.

Posted by: kubiakl | February 5, 2012

New Heights

My shipment of screws came in from Bolt Depot.  They fit perfectly and allowed me to raise the saddles up as high as I needed to get the best mix of tone and playability on my Stratocaster.  Thanks to the longer screws (and raised saddles) my Strat now has an incredible amount of sustain.  Seriously, you can pluck the E string and walk away – it’ll still be vibrating after you’ve grabbed a drink from the fridge.  Fretted notes sustain better as well… it’s just harder to keep holding it while you open a beer.

To recap:  the screws I ordered were Set Screws, Allen, Cup Point, Stainless Steel 18-8, #4-40.  The ones I ended up using were 5/8″, twice as long as the standard screws.  There is a tiny bit of screw head sticking out of the top of the saddle but the next size down (1/2″) was a little too short.  If they ever make a 9/16″ I’m going to order them.

For the high E string I did keep the 1/2″ screws, but the other five saddles got 5/8″.

Anyway, just wanted to say a quick thanks to the folks at Bolt Depot – they shipped everything quickly, and I like the way they labeled the bags clearly.  If you’re in the market for saddle screws I would check here – they even have shorter screws for those of you who complain that your hands are getting cut with your current setup.

I’m very satisfied.  So is my Strat.

Posted by: kubiakl | January 30, 2012

Callaham Vintage Saddles

In my quest for that ultimate tone (my friend and I have dubbed it the God note) I ordered what many claim is the ultimate saddle for a Fender Stratocaster – the Callaham Vintage bent steel saddles.

They sounded good when I installed them, but the action wasn’t where I wanted.  I ran into problems trying to raise them up high enough.  The screws kept slipping and I realized that Fender had a good idea with the cast block American Standard saddles – since the screw is held in a hole, they won’t slip until they are maxed out (which mine were).  So, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth – not to mention stripping a screw – I threw the stock saddles back on and went searching for a solution.

To be fair, the problem is me.  I just really want those saddles to be up higher than normal.  Callaham ships the saddle set with four 1/4″ screws and eight 5/16″ screws, which will work for those who like a low action and don’t want the screws jutting out of the saddles to dig into the meat of the palm.

For those who, like me, want crazy high saddles we’re left with having to find special tall screws.  After some research I found a couple of options.  WD Music Products has a set of eight 7/16″ screws, which would possibly work… but to be safe I went a different route.

Bolt Depot has just about every kind of screw you can imagine.  After some frustrated searching (I had no clue what these types of screws are called), I finally came across the (hopefully) correct screws.  4-40 thread (standard for US customary saddles), Allen Cup point, stainless steel.  These use the same size Allen wrench as the standard screws but are available in various lengths from 1/8″ up to 3/4″.  The really great thing is that screws can be ordered individually – I didn’t have to buy in bulk, so I can try different lengths.

Twenty each of sizes 5/16″ (possibly for the outer E saddles), 3/8″, 1/2″, 5/8″, and 3/4″ are on their way.  Three day shipping ended up costing more than the screws combined but I wanted to have them in my hands before the weekend.  Surely one of those sizes will work for my needs, plus I’ll have some extras handy if I should strip a few in my adjustments.

In other news, the Rene Martinez Strat pickups from Mojotone.com are really, really nice.  I’m loving them.  I’ll try to give a more in depth review (I even borrowed a friend’s Flip camera to try and do it right), but for now I’ll just say that if you’re searching for a great set of pickups you should look into them.

Just one step closer to that ultimate note.

Posted by: kubiakl | December 21, 2011

A Word On Saddle Heights

I am always tweaking my Stratocaster, looking for that little bit of improvement.  One of the things I’ve talked about adjusting before was action – I like it a little on the high side so I can dig in.  There are two ways to do this – you can raise the tremolo bridge via the two posts, or you can raise the individual string saddles.  Which one is best?

It’s pretty subjective but I had a hard time finding information on the subject when (through my own idiocy) I somehow messed it up.  Everyone will tell you what the Fender recommended string height is as measured from the frets but no one really talks about bridge and saddle height.

One reason it’s so subjective is that people like different tremolo setups.  Some like it to float so they can pull up to raise the pitch or push down to lower it.  Others like it blocked off at the back so they can do dive bombs and have it return to pitch quickly.  Then there’s people like me – I don’t use the tremolo at all.  Seriously, the bar has been sitting in my Strat case for years.  So I have four springs on the back with the claw screwed in pretty far to keep the tremolo block tight against the body.

If you are like me and use your Stratocaster as more of a hardtail, then what I’m about to say might help – saddle height makes a HUGE difference.

Up until two days ago I had the bridge raised and the saddles lowered.  I guess my thinking was that the lower the saddles were, the better the string vibration would transfer to the body.  I was mistaken.

After playing a friend’s new Squier Telecaster I noticed that even with the light strings it had a tight, percussive feel, exactly what I want out of a guitar.  I also noticed that his saddles were set pretty high.  This made me think – if a cheap Squier Tele with a screwed down top-loading bridge plate can feel this way, why can’t my Strat?

I screwed the bridge posts all the way down and raised the individual saddles up fairly high, starting with the low E and raising it until there was no buzzing when plucked hard.  Then repeated the process for the other strings.  After that I radiused them a little (my neck is pretty flat) and adjusted so that none of them sounded out of place.

Wow.

It plays incredibly now, and the sound is tight, punchy, and percussive.  It also helps transfer string vibration to the body – hit the right chord and the whole thing vibrates against you.  Here is a (bad) photo of what it looks like so you can get an idea of how high everything is raised:

These instructions aren’t meant for the people who like a loose, spongy, easy feel to their guitars.  It’s meant for those of us who like our guitars to sound full and twangy at the same time, with some bite and growl.  If you’ve been finding yourself unsatisfied with your Strat sound you should try it.

I did an am much happier.

Posted by: kubiakl | December 21, 2011

Pearl

So apparently I lied when I said that I was done with upgrades for my Stratocaster.  In the past week I’ve installed a new bridge pickup and given it a little cosmetic surgery.  What used to be a standard sunburst Stratocaster, with white pickguard and knobs, now looks like this:

Now that is a gorgeous guitar.  The pickguard is from Warmoth, where they will make a guard to your specifications in whatever material you choose.  They don’t have all the graphical pickguards that other sites offer but do have a good selection of white-ish, black-ish, and pearl-ish colors.  Plus you can have it made to your specs.  Mine is the standard Strat configuration – three single coil pickups, three control pots, switch, 11 holes, standard tremolo route.  The main reason I ordered from Warmoth, besides trusting them after having a good experience with my neck, was that they offered a vintage pearl color.  I thought the standard white pearl would look too bright against the sunburst.  And having seen the result, I stand by that.  The vintage pearl is yellowed so it blends a little more.

To go with the pickguard I also bought Fender aged white parts (knobs, pickup covers, and switch tip) from Mojotone.  They match pretty closely and complete the look.  Installation didn’t take too long – remove all the old parts, remembering where they go, and screw them into the new pickguard without anything coming unsoldered.  The fit was perfect (a little tight for some of the pickup covers, but not a problem at all) and the screw holes matched up to my existing holes in the body.  One was a slightly off but went in just fine.  The guard is solid and looks better than I imagined even.

While ordering from Mojotone I decided to try out a new bridge pickup, the Rene Martinez Strat bridge.  Rene Martinez has a pretty long history in the industry as a guitar tech and worked with Mojotone to develop his own line of pickups.  They tout them as having “that Texas tone”, which is code for the Stevie Ray sound.

Now I’ll be honest – Stevie Ray played a big part in me picking up the guitar.  His tone is legendary.  But it’s not a tone I want to copy.  So why a Rene Martinez pickup?

The magnet stagger was a huge factor.  Rene seems to have realized that many people don’t want a vintage stagger these days, with the super tall G pole.  It doesn’t make sense on modern strings or guitars without the vintage 7.25″ fretboard radius.  Those were made for string sets with a wound third string, which would make it the weakest string (the thinnest wound string), so it needed a little boost.  Almost all of you reading this with an electric guitar have an unwound third string on there.  So that would make it the strongest string (thickest unwound), which means that your lower three magnets are the ones that need to be raised, but not the third pole.

Martinez does just that – the lower three magnet poles are staggered upwards, then the upper three magnets are dropped down.  It gives more balance across the strings.

So far I’m really liking it.  I had never used the bridge pickup by itself – it was thin and sounded way too trebly.  Now I can switch to it and find a useable sound, even when strumming chords.  It also works well in conjunction with the middle pickup for the 4th position.  One thing I found out: the way it is wired is different from standard Fender wiring.  I’m not sure what the technical term is for it, but to make it work in the 4th position without a volume loss I had to wire the black to the selector switch and ground the white on the volume potentiometer.  Had to waste a new set of strings to learn that little lesson.

I like it enough that I’m considering completing the set with a neck and middle pickup from Mojotone/Rene Martinez.  I’m not unhappy with them, and after my failed experiment with the Seymour Duncan APS-2 I thought I was finished with pickups, but life will surprise you sometimes.

Posted by: kubiakl | December 7, 2011

Current Obsessions

Things I am currently obsessed with:

Tracking down the cause of the weird clicky sound that sometimes occurs when I play, especially on the unwound strings of my Stratocaster.  I’m convinced that it has something to do with daisy chaining four of my pedals off of one power supply – after Christmas I’d like to upgrade to the Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2 so that each has an independent supply.  If that doesn’t work… I dunno.  Could be the wiring I guess, from when I changed out the stock neck pickup to the Seymour Duncan APS-2, then back to the stock pickup again.  Or it could be when I installed the Orange Drop .047uf capacitor.  Or it could be in my head.

Songs in A.  A good majority of the songs I’ve come up with, especially lately, have revolved around the A chord (or based around a droning A string).  Can’t really explain this one, our other guitarist thinks it’s because A is right in the middle of the fretboard and I’m just too lazy to move my hand.  He could be right.  It could also be the droning tone I can get – Junior Kimbrough used open string drones quite a bit and I’ve been listening to him a lot.

Guitar Center Studios.  It’s really more of a rehearsal room that lets you take a recording of what you play live home, but it’s a nice rehearsal room where you can tighten things up.  We’ve been using the new one built in Round Rock quite a bit.  The people there are incredibly friendly and helpful, the recording option is handy so you can hear what you would sound like live, and they have good equipment for you to use.  The rooms we’ve been in had a Marshall half stack and a Fender Super Sonic, as well as a bass amp and good drum kits.  (I did try the amps, but use my Blues Junior for recording.  It just has a great sound for me.)  If you need a place to practice I recommend checking it out.

 

Obsessions that have dropped off:

Upgrading my Strat.  Right now I really like the sound (minus the clicky thing I mentioned earlier), so until I finally decide to blow through money testing out pickups it’s going to stay the way it is.  There was some reading done on tremolo blocks and people raved about how such and such block increased their sustain / livened up their tone / did their taxes for them, but I don’t really have an issue with mine.

Pedal purchasing.  Yes, I’m sure that I’ll buy more pedals, but right now I’m getting good sounds consistently and don’t feel the need to change them out.  At some point I may look at a separate compressor and overdrive to replace the Route 66, but it’s working very well for me at the moment.

Upgrading the Blues Junior.  After replacing the speaker, tubes, and reverb tank (you have to go way back to find that post), it sounds great.  Not that it didn’t sound good before, but now it plays with me a little better.  The Jet City amp is currently being used by our other guitarist so I’m not worried about it.  When he gets the Vox AC15 he’s been dreaming of the Jet City will probably have a little work done.

And that’s about it.  I haven’t written much lately because… well, life.  Teaching and playing guitar has left little time for anything else.  Just wanted to throw out a few thoughts while I had them… and time.

Posted by: kubiakl | November 13, 2011

Searching For The Sound

A few notes on my ongoing search for a great tone:

The Seymour Duncan APS-2 didn’t work out for me.  I left it in the neck position on my Strat for over a week and kept monkeying with it – I tried different pickup heights, different string heights, different tone settings… everything I could think of.  It was a good sounding pickup, just not right for my sound.  The low strings were too soft and the plain third string (G) was too bright.  It’s possible that the Seymour Duncan 5-2 would be better but for now I’m back to the standard American Stratocaster factory pickups.

I did change the capacitor on the tone pot though.  First I tried Mojotone paper-in-oil Vitamin T, the .047 value.  The sound was good but when the tone control was turned down it crackled.  It’s entirely possible that I screwed something up in soldering it in, but either way it came out.  In its place went an Orange Drop .047 (ordered from Mojotone as well).  Strats come with a .022 cap in them, which makes them pretty bright.  Changing to the higher value means that more highs get rolled off as you turn the knob – I really like the control it gives me.  And the Orange Drop works very well.

The biggest change came from a pedal.  I found a used Visual Sound Route 66 pedal on Guitar Center’s website, so I gave it a shot.  We just got back from rehearsing at full volume and it performed extremely well – the Fulltone OCD is now in our other guitarist’s rig.  Using the compression (the comp set around 3:00, the volume set to unity, tone at noon) did add a little bit of noise, but not enough to drive me insane.  I turned off the noise gate though – I didn’t like how it trailed off.  The overdrive is nice and smooth (drive at 2:00, tone at noon, volume around unity, bass boost off) and works well with the compressor.  What really sold me was how they both interacted with the London Fuzz pedal.  It tightened up my fuzz tone and made it a little more focused, while still retaining that awesome fuzz sound.

So right now my signal chain looks like this:

Strat (sometimes Tele or Dot) -> Fulltone Mini Deja Vibe -> Visual Sound Route 66 -> Guyatone Micro OD -> MJM London Fuzz -> CAE Wah -> Danelectro Cool Cat Tremolo -> Fender Blues Jr.

I’m really digging it.  Today my tone sounded great for all of the songs we played, and the Route 66 stayed on the whole time.  If you’re looking for a compressor or overdrive that accentuates your sound without completely changing it, I’d give the Visual Sound Route 66 a whirl.

I’ll probably stick with this rig for now, although the search for my personal Holy Grail tone will never be complete.  It’s a journey, not a destination.

Posted by: kubiakl | October 31, 2011

Darren Riley

I’ve already praised Mojotone quite a bit, but I want to give a nod to another supplier – Darren Riley.  When I decided to change pickups on my Stratocaster I decided I wanted to try some with Alnico II magnets.  They are supposed to have a softer attack and smoother top end, which sounded perfect for me.

Mojotone didn’t carry the Seymour Duncan APS-2 (non-staggered model, for flatter radii necks) so I searched around.  Darren Riley’s happened to carry it at a good price and had the RW/RP version listed separately (many places that carried the APS-2 didn’t distinguish them clearly), so it was easy to know what I was buying.

Aside from a great inventory and easy website, the guys at Darren Riley’s shipped it QUICK.  I placed my order Friday morning in between classes, and just finished testing my installation (it’s Monday evening).  Shipping on any order including a Seymour Duncan pickup was free.

These guys have definitely made me a happy customer, and I know I’ll be buying from them again in the near future.  Check ’em out if you’re in the market for guitar parts – they have a huge selection and seem to be excellent to deal with.

Posted by: kubiakl | October 8, 2011

Seven Turns

Recently I switched brands of strings, from the DR Pure Blues that have been my mainstay for years to the GHS signature Eric Johnson Nickel Rockers.  And at first I loved them.  The tone was there, everything felt more percussive, and the rollerwounds caused less string noise.

The last batch I ordered had some issues though.  Maybe something happened in the mailing process, but for some reason my newer sets didn’t feel or sound right.  There was a dryness to them that made it hard to play.  That lasted for two sets.  I didn’t try the third.

Instead I went back to DR strings.  There has never been an issue and they sound and feel great.  But when I changed back I noticed my setup had drifted and needed to be reset.  So I raised the bridge saddles on a string or two and started playing again.  Suddenly my sound was incredibly treble heavy, not the smooth tone I had before.

It turns out that guitars are even more temperamental than you might think.  Small changes can have huge effects on the sound.  A quarter turn with a screwdriver on one component might change your overall tone.  I realized this especially when I was adjusting the bridge height – too low, and everything sounded spongy.  Too high, and my bass strings had a ringing hollow sound.

Pickup height was another area I had to toy with.  Since I don’t care for a lot of treble I set my Strat pickups closer to the strings on the bass side.  I also like a lower output sound, so my pickups are pretty far from the strings.  Basically the treble side of the pickup is close to flush with the pickguard and the bass side is slightly higher.  At some point I might try to find pickups with less treble output but for now my sound has returned.

My point is this: if you’re setting up your guitar, be mindful of how small changes will affect your tone.  Tiny turns make big changes.

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