Bonding with my Gear
It has been a while since I've written about why I chose to put together the kind of rig I have. I've written bits and pieces about different pieces of gear, but I really haven't made a comprehensive statement about why I like what I like since my days of favoring Mesa/Boogie and Gibson. A lot has changed since then, but my goals have remained fairly constant.
My main rig now consists of a Fender Vibro-King, a Koll Custom DL Thinline guitar, and a few pedals.
Let's start with the guitar. The Koll Custom DL Thinline was designed from scratch to replace a guitar that I had been playing almost exclusively for several years. I went into the custom guitar project knowing exactly how I wanted to improve upon my best guitar. I actually spent two years agonizing over design decisions. The end result was that Saul Koll delivered a guitar that was perfect in every way; the only surprise was how well it filled all my expectations.
You just don't get that kind of satisfaction from a guitar that you buy off-the-rack or with minimal customizations. When I used to shop for a guitar I'd notice things in roughly this order:
- Looks (design, finish)
- Acoustic tone
- Electric tone
- Build quality
That's all well and good, and it's how I picked the predecessor to the Koll. But there are things you just don't notice until you've lived with a guitar for a while, and it's those annoyances that I corrected with the Koll.
It's important to note the Koll in not a departure from my earlier preferences -- it's a refinement. It's still all the things I looked for six years ago: a double-cutaway semi-hollow guitar with vintage-output pickups, a short scale, a compound-radius fretboard with large frets, and a fine-tuner tailpiece. Those are all attributes that I settled upon fairly quickly. The big refinement with the Koll is in the way it responds to the amp; this guitar/amp combination "comes alive" at a very reasonable volume. That, some small ergonomic tweaks and the stunning good looks of the instrument are a tribute to Saul's mastery of his craft, his attention to detail, and his uncanny ability to understand what makes each customer's needs and desires unique.
I do have a second Koll on order. This one is a variation of the first, having P-90 pickups and a Bigsby tailpiece.
The amp, a Fender Vibro-King, was a pretty big change for me when I bought it. I was playing Mesa/Boogie amps and getting really frustrated with my inability to make them behave and sound exactly the way I wanted. I wasn't even considering a Fender amp at the time; my prior experience with Fenders was way less than satisfactory. But an online friend convinced my to give the Vibro-King a shot; he thought I'd like it based upon my expressed goals, and he was right. I knew within the first five minutes that this was the amp I had been looking for all along.
I've always had a thing for big amps. Not necesarily 4x any output tube, but definitely big bottles, big iron and multiple speakers. During my Boogie phase I never really bonded with the 6V6 and EL84 amps, and was never really happy with the sound of a one-speaker combo amp. I just can't get a decent clean sound out of a couple of 6V6s or EL84s and one speaker... I wish I could, it'd make my amp a lot easier to carry.
Jumping from a long succession of Mesa/Boogie amps straight to Fender seems radical, but it's not when you consider that I had been trying to get the Boogies to behave like the Vibro-King. Lesson learned: flexibility in an amp has its own limitations, no matter how many knobs there are to tweak.
Despite the fact that the VK is a large amp, it's not uncontrollably loud. I think I've run the VK as high as 7, but that was with an insanely loud band. For me, with "vintage output" humbuckers, there's a sweet spot right at around 4 to 5 on the volume (with T/B/M ranging from 4/4/4 to 5/2/7) that lets me go from clean to crunch with picking-hand technique and/or guitar volume.
I don't have any favorite amp settings. Pretty much anything sounds good with this rig. I do like to mix pickups on a humbucker guitar. Put the selector in the middle, roll back the volumes a bit (down to about 3 or 4 if your guitar has linear pots like a Gibson, otherwise down to about 7) and roll back the bridge PU tone just a little. Then use the volume controls to get your tonal variations... Cut back on the neck PU when doing thick clean chord work. Or bring up the bridge PU to play crunch rhythm. Or bring up the neck pickup to fatten up single-line solos. It's very satisfying to get all that variation without stomping on a pedal.
Lately I've been playing cleaner and quieter, working more on chord voicing and voice leading. Having the volume closer to 3 works well for that; I can still get a hint a of a yowl by digging in, but the overall volume is a lot lower. With my guitar, I can get plenty of sustain even at that volume. One of the things I love about the VK is that it doesn't need to be loud to give up the goods; it has a very broad "sweet spot". It's a very "fast" amp without sounding "clinical" or stiff; it's tough to find that combination. And the three ten-inch speakers (Jensen or Eminence) give a nice combination of solid lows, balanced mids and smooth highs. (One thing I've learned over the years is that I'm not fond of the sound of Celestion speakers.)
When I want to go even quieter I'll drop the volume to around 2 and use a pedal if I need some extra grit or sustain. That's the cool thing about the Vibro-King: it sounds really good at any volume. I don't really care to wind the amp up to the point where I'm getting tons of distortion and compression. (Not very often anyhow, and when I do it's either for extremely short time periods or with the protection of earplugs.)
A special gear tip: wear earplugs! Etymotic makes one-size-fits-all earplugs that don't suck; they cost about $12 a pair. If you frequently play loud it may be worth your while to spring for custom-molded plugs.
I play mostly fingerstyle and like to be able to hear the different voices within the chords, but I also like the warmth (i.e. very mild distortion) that the Vibro-King adds at low to moderate volumes. My guitar is constructed to be very lively acoustically, so I can get amp-driven sustain and even feedback at very reasonable volumes. I've been working at this for a while -- my rig is tailored to sound great at volumes that would be appropriate for unmic'd use in a small venue where the patrons like to be able to converse or mic'd in a small club where the stage volume must be carefully controlled.
My three-pedal pedalboard includes a good-sounding overdrive that doesn't depend upon the amp already being cranked to the edge of breakup. The Blackstone MOSFET Overdrive, although a bit on the spendy side, responds to playing dynamics in the same way as a good tube amp. Dig in and the sound gets fatter and louder. Other drive pedals tend to sound buzzy and kill your playing dynamics when you dig in, more like a typical master-volume amp.
For compression I use an Aphex Punch Factory. This is an optical compressor that's easy to adjust and sounds great. I like compression that brings up the volume as a note decays but doesn't squash the attack, and does so in such a way that you don't have to alter you style to suit the compressor settings. Somehow the Aphex seems to adapt to my playing; it gives me more sustain without crushing my picking dynamics.
Next to reverb (and the Vibro-King has one of the best-sounding spring reverbs I've ever heard) one of my favorite effects is echo. But not just any echo: it has to be evocative of a tape echo with those understated, slightly murky repeats. The Toadworks Redux gives me this without the maintenance hassles of a real tape echo. It also does some very quirky and interesting repeat patterns thanks to the addition of an "offset" delay that behaves much like a second continuously-variable delay tap.
Although the pedals are always in my signal chain, I rarely use them. The natural warmth and spacious reverb of the VK provide a fantastic base sound; the pedals are there mostly in case I need some different textures when playing with other musicians.
It's worth noting that all my pedals have true-bypass switching and I don't use a buffer. I've never found a buffer that doesn't sound better sitting on the shelf rather than plugged in. To avoid a disturbing shift in the guitar's high-end response when a pedal is engaged I limit the number of pedals (three is OK, but somewhere around four or five is not), run a long cord from guitar to board and a short cord from board to amp. I won't go into details here about why that works; I've written about it elsewhere.
My cables are chosen for reliability. I use a mix of Horizon and house-brand cables made from quality wire and connectors. The only thing that's special about any of them is that they're well-made. I also like my Peavey coil cord, which is exceptionally well made, for when I don't use the pedal board.
I've gotten away from seeking out cables having extremely low capacitance. Those were a virtual necessity in my Mesa/Boogie days; every extra bit of high-end that you could force-feed into the front end of those amps helped to combat their lack of sparkle.
I use a Peterson VS-1 tuner that I've had since the model was first introduced. This is not in my signal chain because it doesn't need to be. When a good guitar is actually in tune, you generally won't need to touch up the tuning unless you do extremely aggressive bends (I don't) or the room temperate goes through a sudden change. The Peterson is ten to thirty times more accurate than your typical stompbox tuner; there's no guesswork, no touch-ups and no need to coddle the tuner with arcane procedures (that don't really work anyhow).
I have a Leslie 147 with the preamp pedal, both in very good condition. I grew up around people who played (both guitar and organ) through Leslie speakers and have always loved that sound. I've been through just about every Leslie emulator in existence and none of them can match the experience of playing through a real Leslie. I've decided to give up on emulators and just enjoy the real thing.
I live in the city. My music room is in the basement, about fifty to one hundred feet from the neighbors in three directions. In the fourth direction my basement is below grade so the sound has to go through a floor, an interior wall and an exterior wall before reaching the adjacent neighbor. I have checked outside and the sound from my music room is audible close to my house but not objectionable in any sense. I'm certainly not in danger of violating the city noise ordinance. In fact, someone walking past on the sidewalk wouldn't give it a second thought. Our living room is immediately above the music room and my wife does have to raise the TV volume when I play, but she doesn't have to blast it. I'm saving my pennies to improve the acoustic isolation through the floor. That's my next major upgrade; my guitar rig is perfect.