Dunlop Primetone Picks

Last year I posted about about my experience putting a range of low- and high-end picks through their paces. At the time, I commented about the dramatic price jump between manufactured picks and premium, handmade options. There just weren’t many choices in the consumer no-man’s land between $0.25 and $25.00. The folks at Dunlop Manufacturing have recently filled that void, and the results are impressive.

Dunlop’s Primetone picks retail at about $6 street for a 3-pack, or $2 a pick. They are made of Dunlop’s tried and true “Ultex” material; I’ve been a fan of the translucent, heavy triangular Ultex picks for a while now. So what exactly merits the price jump for the Primetones?

Dunlop cites the addition of “hand-burnished sculpted edges” — bevels designed to simulate the feel and speed of a well-worn plectrum; each bag of picks is initialed by the factory craftsman responsible for the burnishing. The Primetones are also significantly  thicker, available in 1.4mm and 1.5mm (standard Ultex picks max out at 1.14mm). This is good news for acoustic flatpickers, who rely on heavy plectrums to coax as much volume and punch as possible from their dreadnoughts. In addition to several different shapes, the Dunlop Primetones are available in two different material consistencies — a translucent, tortoise shell-esque red color with a raised logo for better grip (512P, left image), and a more smoothly polished opaque finish (513P, right image).

I ordered a package of triangular 1.5mm picks in each finish. The verdict? For flatpickers especially, the Primetones may be the best value-for-money on the market today. The 512P in particular held up nicely by comparison to premium-priced Wegen and Red Bear picks, offering crystal clear note articulation and plenty of volume on tap from my D-28. The raised grip and speed bevels made for a very comfortable playing experience. The 513P is a little mellower, trading some high end crispness for a more resounding bass thump — I found it particularly useful for jazz applications, when the treble from my humbucker-equipped Telecaster needs taming. I find myself increasingly defaulting to the Primetones as my go-to pick, and best of all I can lose one or two without tearing up at the replacement cost. Well done Dunlop.

Classic Setlist, Simple Rig

Played a benefit show at the Black Cat earlier this evening with my jazz group; we put our horn section to good use on a setlist of old-school R&B. There’s no sense muddying classic tunes with a sea of effects. Just a tuner, tremolo pedal for Pops Staples tones on “Chain of Fools” and “Heard it through the Grapevine,” and an envelope filter for some funky scratching on “Signed, Sealed & Delivered.” It’s been too long since I last played an electric gig on a real stage. NOW we’re cookin’ with gas…

Organ Grinder at Your Feet

I tend to stick to basics when it comes to guitar effects, but this latest offering from Electro-Harmonix — the “B9 Organ Machine” — looks pretty cool. While it’s no substitute for a righteous Hammond player, the sounds in the clip are still pretty convincing. Definitely an intriguing option for adding something different to the mix.

I’ve been on an organ combo kick for the past month or so, ever since catching Pat Martino’s trio at Birdland. One of my favorite albums of 2014 so far is Shadow Box by Bob DeVos, which blends old school soul jazz sounds with a more contemporary aesthetic. DeVos is a skillful bop-grounded improviser, but he’s also at home over a bluesy groove — check out the gospel-inflected “Basie in Mind,” one of the standouts from Shadow Box

Weekend Mod Project: BillM Blues Jr Mods, Part 2

Last week I posted about my decision to jump headfirst into the world of amp mods, performing some simple tweaks to my Fender Blues Jr using a popular kit from online Jr guru Bill Machrone. This included the “TwinStack” mod, replacement orange drop tone capacitors, power supply stiffening capacitor, and adjustable bias trim pot, as well as a presence control and more robust input jack. Sounds complicated, but in reality the mods involve only a handful of components. What could go wrong?

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Weekend Mod Project: BillM Blues Jr Mods, Part 1

I worked in guitar shops throughout high school and college, and began tinkering with guitar electronics soon after coworkers taught me to wield a soldering iron. After more than a decade of DIY jobs, I feel comfortable toying with the innards of most control cavities. That said, passive guitar circuits are relatively simple. Amps are another matter entirely; even the simplest designs put a guitar circuit to shame, and most amps can store a lethal electrical charge in their capacitors — even when unplugged. So I’ve generally left amp repair and mods to the experts.

As readers know, it can be hard to suppress the DIY instinct, especially when other pickers are raving about a particular mod. Recently, the itch to tinker with my Fender Blues Jr finally reached critical mass. For several years, I had read rave reviews of the so-called “BillM mods” — circuit modifications from the mind of Jr guru Bill Machrone that most players seem to agree yield a dramatic improvement in the little amp’s tone.

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6-String Web Roundup: Winter NAMM 2014 Edition

I’ve been on a long hiatus from the blog for reasons both musical and professional, but it’s about damn time to resume posting. The 2014 Winter NAMM show wrapped up a couple weekends ago, which means new gear announcements galore. Here are some of the highlights.

Fishman debuted its new “Fluence” electric guitar pickups (Premier Guitar has a good feature on the technology). A lot of guitar companies  have been touting “revolutionary” products in recent years that fail to live up to the hype; this is one development that seems to have real potential.

AXL won the prize for hippest sub-$1K guitar announcement — the $750 street Bel Air is assembled in America and features a LP Jr-inspired body, single TV Jones humbucker, and cool-as-beans Bigsby tailpiece.

Huss and Dalton took the +$3K prize for the DS Crossroads acoustic guitar, a slope-shouldered mahogany dreadnought with a Gibson-style 24.5″ scale length — this one’s on my “must try” short list.

The offerings from Fender were a little disappointing this winter, save for a super-cool Custom Shop replica of the Nile Rodgers “Hitmaker” Stratocaster. It’s always nice to see a behind-the-scenes session ace rewarded with a signature instrument.

P-90 equipped jazz boxes are a rarity these days; D’Angelico has stepped up with the EX-59, a full-depth 17″ archtop with two 1950s approved single coils and a gorgeous burst finish — this one’s built for pickin’ “Chitlins Con Carne.”

Electro Harmonix — which previously announced an affordable Klon Centaur-inspired overdrive — also announced the Satisfaction Fuzz, which promises Keef tones for $70; you’d be hard-pressed to find an original Maestro Fuzz Tone for anything less than three times that figure.  

I’ve been jonesing lately for a compact acoustic archtop a la Dave Rawlings’ 1935 Epiphone Olympic. Lo and behold, Gretsch showed off the G9550 New Yorker, a solid-topped sunburst 16″ archtop. at an uber-reasonable price.

Finally, Taylor announced a revamping of its 800 series guitars, including a new bracing approach that’s supposed to yield bigger tone. I’ve never really been blown away by any Taylor I’ve encountered (admittedly I’m biased toward the Martin sound) — maybe these guitars can shift my perception.

 

Weekend Test Drive: Comins GCS-1

I recently payed a visit to Action Music in Falls Church, which has arguably the best selection of boutique gear in the DC area; every visit I usually find something new and unique to salivate over. This time around, I was excited to see a pair of Comins GCS-1 semi-hollow electrics on the wall.

Philadelphia-based Bill Comins is best known for high-end, handcrafted archtops that usually fetch upwards of five figures. In 2012, he reached out to a new market by releasing a line of imported semi-hollow guitars. It would have been easy for the luthier to lend his credible name to the headstock of a generic factory guitar, but he instead worked closely with his Korean counterparts to spec a pro-level instrument. The GCS-1 is pricey for an import at $1500 street, so I was curious to find out if the instrument lives up to its boutique pedigree.

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Waiting for “The One”

Singer-songwriter Laura Zucker has a good post up on Guitar World, describing her quest for “the one.” No, not Keanu Reeves. Rather, an instrument with the elusive combination of sound, form, and aesthetics that best suited her as a player. She eventually chanced upon a custom Breedlove that fit the bill. Besides maybe concert violinists, whose instruments are an art form unto themselves and routinely command eye-watering prices, I’m not sure many other musicians obsess over finding “the one” so much as guitarists.

I worked in guitar shops throughout high school and college, which is basically indentured servitude for gear addicts. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that the number of guitars I’ve personally owned is in the (low) double digits. That number includes at least three Strats and five Teles, a couple pointy guitars with Floyd Roses, and even a Les Paul for good measure. The vast majority of those guitars didn’t last long before I traded them away. The longest-standing instrument I still possess is a sunburst Fender Mexican Strat purchased in high school, my first “serious” guitar. It was my go-to electric for the better part of a decade, and has gone through innumerable hardware mods and pickup upgrades; just last year I was rewiring it yet again for a bridge pickup blend pot. I traded away a lot of guitars because they just didn’t feel like home in the same way.

Over time my preference shifted toward Telecasters, and I’ve cycled through a few before arriving at the American Special that currently gets most of my attention. While it’s a great guitar, I still can’t say I’ve necessarily found “the one.” Zucker writes that she only chanced on the Breedlove when she wasn’t really in the market for a new guitar. “It just came to me,” in her words. It also helped that she threw monetary caution to the wind, buying “the guitar that I really wanted, and not just the one I could reasonably afford.” My recent experience with a certain Gibson ES-330 seems to validate Laura’s insight. That said, I can think of at least 4 or 5 guitars that I really want, so putting her advice into practice might be an expensive proposition…

Weekend Test Drive: Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb & Gibson ES-330 TD VOS

Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb and Gibson ES-330 Reviewed

I’ve posted some critical musings lately regarding recent marketing decisions from Fender and Gibson. I scorn because I love. Both companies still churn out some great products and are — for me anyway — still the point of departure for classic American electric guitar design. Last weekend I stopped by Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, and had a chance to put two solid products from both companies through their paces.

Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb

I expressed skepticism a few weeks ago regarding the ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb. From the online product specs, it seemed as though Fender was making a questionable decision to resurrect amps from its controversial “silverface” era. So when I saw a shiny new example of the Custom DR at Levin’s, I had no choice but to grab a Tele off the wall and plug in (though it did take some willpower to ignore the boutique offerings from Bogner and Carr sitting to either side).

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Fender Really Wants Us to Give the CBS Era Another Chance

Last month I wrote about Fender’s reissue of the Coronado and Starcaster, idiosyncratic guitars that were originally released during Fender’s controversial CBS period and have since enjoyed a cult following. Another week, another CBS-era resurrection. FMIC has brought back — in “vintage modified” form — the “silverface” amplifiers of 1968, including the Twin Reverb, Deluxe Reverb, and Princeton Reverb. This marketing decision is a little more perplexing.

Fender’s silverface (a reference to the silver control panel) amplifiers represented more than just a cosmetic departure from the “blackface” era of 1964-1967. While sharing model names, the silverfaces featured circuit tweaks that arguably affected the tone of the amps, in ways that have made them less sought-after than their predecessors (though the 1968 changes were more subtle than variations later introduced in the 70s). Granted, original silverface Fender amps have enjoyed new-found popularity in the past decade, in large part because they can be had for cheaper prices on the vintage market (while still sporting hand wired point-to-point construction). Nonetheless, the internet abounds with discussions of how to internally modify these amps to pre-CBS specs.

Fender already offers popular reissues of the ’65 Twin Reverb, Deluxe Reverb, and Princeton Reverb. These amps use modern (though less durable) printed circuit boards to keep costs down, which appears to also be the case with the new silverfaces. By contrast, the silverfaces are not strict reissues, offering tweaks not seen in the originals. For example, the ’68 Deluxe Reverb features a “modified Bassman tone stack” in one channel, which is supposed to be better suited to effects pedals. So maybe there’s something new here. Still, it seems that buyers (who may already be confused by Fender’s myriad product lines) basically have the option to purchase a cosmetically different amp, of comparable construction quality and price to the ’65 reissues, with an historically less popular (albeit functionally modified) tone profile. Am I missing something here?

Cosmetic comparison — 1966 Princeton (left) and 1974 Princeton (right).                     Image credits: Drmies and Bubba73 of the Wikimedia Commons.