David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: opinion, philosophy, preferences, @musings info

Things I need to be reminded of...

I've been writing about guitars and music for about three years. I've been playing for a lot longer than that. Sometimes I cover old ground or retrace old footsteps, thinking that things will be different this time around. They're usually not, especially when it comes to gear. This article is a reminder to myself of things that I really don't need to rediscover yet again.

Things I Need to Remember

Flexibility does not lead to musicality.
Flexible options provide me with little more than a way to spend time tweaking gear instead of making music. Musicality is in the notes, and the context, and in the spaces between the notes.
Never buy a real tape echo.
It's so tempting to drop about $1,000 on buying and restoring an old tape echo, or on buying one of the new reproductions. But I used to repair and maintain gear like this when I was a kid. Moving parts are trouble. Magnetic tape is short-lived in this application. Rubber idler wheels are unpredictable as they get older. And, especially nowadays, spare parts are rare and expensive. I love the sound and behavior of a real tape echo, but don't need the maintenance and reliability headaches.
Avoid modulation and synth effects.
I shouldn't need to be reminded of this, but I seem to have periodic relapses. These effects sound so seductive in the shop, but become boring and cliched almost instantly when I get them home? Why is that? And I don't buy the argument that effects like these really need to be applied within the context of a song. I've done that. Call me weird, but I want my guitar to sound like a guitar... If I can't make my guitar sound interesting within the context of a song, then I'm doing something wrong.
Don't buy another wah pedal.
Wah was lame when I was 15 and it's still lame now that I'm 51. One or two players in the history of guitar have managed to make a wah sound good every time they use it. Millions of other players have found a way to make wah work for them once or twice, and then they keep using the infernal tool in a vain attempt to rediscover that magic. Even more players should be shot for even having a wah. I'm probably in the second group of wah users, which must be why I get inspired to buy one every now and then. I'll use it for a few days, realize that it just isn't going to work for me, and sell it.
Don't buy another digital effect.
I don't know why I keep falling for these. Oh, wait... yes I do. I keep reading about how the latest generation is so much better than the last, then make the mistake of assuming that "better" means "really good" instead of "sucks less". Things I don't like about digital effects:
  1. Noise gates. They all have `em, and they're on by default. On some of `em you can't even disable the gate, and on most you can't adjust the gate.
  2. Crappy user interfaces. Computer geeks should not be designing tools for making music. Even when a device has knobs instead of menus there's always a disconnect between what you'd reasonably expect a control to do and what it really does.
  3. Lack of transparency. Even when bypassed, most digital devices corrupt the signal in subtle but noticeable ways. And there's always a processing lag; don't try to use a digital effect in a parallel effects loop unless you like comb filtering.
  4. Unreasonable overload characteristics. Electric guitar music for the past fifty years has been all about what happens when you crank everything up to ten (or eleven or twelve) and play with the distortion. Put just one digital device in your signal path and you suddenly have to worry about absolute peak signal levels. Run your signal just a tiny bit too hot and you'll get some decidely ugly and non-musical distortion. Compensate by running your signal at a lower level and you pay the price of increased noise and loss of detail at low levels.
  5. Lazy emulations. Digital gear is all about approximations. Not only is the digitized signal an approximation, but the function of the effect is also a tradeoff between physical accuracy and cost constraints. That's why you can't change the time of a digital delay without glitches and why amp modellers don't really behave like the kinds of amps they model.
  6. Rapid obsolescence. A new-and-improved (but still sucky, see above) unit will be on the market in about six month's time, at which point everything that came before will have the resale value of dirt. Upgrades? How many devices have you seen that promised downloadable firmware upgrades? And how many actually delivered on that promise other than to fix bugs that should never have been discovered by consumers in the first place? Face it, having "digital" in the title of a product means "this will have infinitesimal resale value in six months to a year"...
Don't buy another Leslie emulator.
This is a tough one for me. Leslie is one of my favorite effects. I grew up around people who had 122 and 147 cabs in their homes, and was entranced by that indescribable sound. I now own a Leslie 147 in good condition and love the way it sounds with my guitar. I've also been through a lot of Leslie sims that sound "just like" a Leslie. The problem is that we key in on certain aspects of a Leslie and can hear them in a simulator. A lot of players don't really understand what a Leslie does; they've only heard recordings. Worse yet, some of those recordings are of Vibratone cabinets or even Leslie sims, none of which sound like a Leslie in a room. For some people a fast chorus is "close enough" to sounding like a Leslie. I expect to hear independent horn and rotor sounds with different accellerations, plus a bit of that cathode-biased growl when pushed. When I hear the latest generation of sims I can convince myself that they got almost everything right. The problem is that the sims don't (not even through stereo amps, which all of them support) capture the spatial effect of a Leslie. So I'm going to stick with the real thing and simply forgo that sound unless I'm willing to drag the Leslie along. I don't consider the Leslie to be an essential part of my guitar sound, but it's a lot of fun to play with every now and then.
Don't buy another equalizer.
An outboard equalizer is a tempting piece of gear that can be used for tone shaping and level adjustment. When used in front of distortion it can even fine-tune the touch sensitivity of your rig. Unfortunately, equalizers are also fussy to set up and easy to abuse. I've used both graphic and parametric equalizers and they're both useful for tuning a poor-sounding rig. Now that I have a good understanding of what kind of tone I like to hear and have a rig that delivers that tone, I really don't need or want the added complexity of an outboard equalizer. I can get plenty of tonal variation using just my guitar's controls and my fingers.
Don't buy another analog echo.
For the most part I love the sound of analog echo units based upon the old-school BBD chips. They have a murkiness that's reminiscent of a well-worn tape echo. But they have a very annoying quirk: the compander circuitry (used to keep the background noise of the BBD chip in the background) introduces an artifact on the pick attack. This sounds like an added thump or chirp, depending upon how well the unit is adjusted.
Don't buy another looper.
This one falls into the category of "recognize your limitations". Loopers seem like such an interesting tool. There are players who make very good use of loopers: Jim Thomas of the Mermen, for one. I'm not one of those players... (See my rant, above, regarding wah pedals.) I can't envision multiple overlapping parts in advance, and don't want to play leads over a looped rhythm track.
Don't buy another wireless.
It doesn't matter how much money you spend, a wireless will never sound as good as a cable. I don't even use a buffer on my pedalboard; when all the effects are disengaged my guitar goes straight into the amp. There are only two reasons to use a wireless: freedom of movement (which really isn't an issue for me) and electrical isolation for protection against shocks and electrocution. I get my shock protection from a portable ground fault interrupter (GFI) plugged in between my power strip and the wall.
Don't buy another A/B switch.
Switching between amps to get different tones seems like such a cool idea. You can choose one amp/cab combination for your perfect clean tone and the other for your perfect dirty tone. In reality there are several drawbacks to this approach.
  1. There's more to go wrong. And don't kid yourself that this kind of rig has a "built-in" spare amp: you chose the two rigs for their distinctive sounds.
  2. You now have two sound sources to deal with. In a mic'd venue this doubles the chances for the sound guy to screw up. In a small room (especially in a cramped rehearsal space) having two different sound sources makes it that much harder to get your levels set so that everyone can hear you at an appropriate volume.
  3. Good luck finding the settings that work well together. Adjusting two switched amps is actually harder than adjusting a channel-switching amp. You have no common tone to build upon. Getting both amps to sit properly in the band mix is very difficult.
Don't buy another fuzzbox.
I'll admit it: I'm a child of the sixties. The guitar music that I listened to in my formative years got its distortion in one of two ways: by cranking up an amp or by using a fuzzbox. Overdrive pedals wouldn't exist for another decade. As much as I enjoyed the sound of fuzz in the psychedelic music of the late `60s, I quickly discovered that it's a sound which takes special care to fit into the band mix. Even as a kid, playing through my original Fuzz Face (ah, if I only knew then what I know now...) I could hear my guitar "drop out of the mix" when I kicked in the fuzz. A note needs a well-defined attack sound in order to remain articulate.
Don't buy another low-powered amp.
On this point, I'm obviously bucking a trend among players my age. 18-watters, power scaling and single-ended amps are all the rage. I've had the opportunity to play a lot of these; it's fun to crank them up and get distortion from the whole amp/speaker rig. The problem is that they just don't sound as good when you turn them (or your guitar) down. Give me forty to one-hundred watts and multiple speakers: I want my guitar to speak with authority when I dig in to those strings.
April 10 2006 17:07:44 GMT