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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Jet Engines by Amy McCarley

The alt country scene is crowded these days, which is great for fans but tough for artists looking to stand out. Fortunately for Amy McCarley, the first thing that strikes a new listener is her distinctive voice. There are shades of genre luminaries in her Alabama drawl — a little bit of Lucinda Williams slur, a touch of Dwight Yoakam-esque mountain twang. But comparisons are really only useful for reference purposes; McCarley’s sound is all her own, and her latest album Jet Engines showcases an artist firmly grounded in Americana, yet well-poised to make an individual statement.

Roots guitar fans will immediately be drawn to the production imprint of Kenny Vaughan, probably most well-known for his picking in Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives. Indeed, Vaughan leads a rock-solid band, and tasty blues-meets-country riffs abound. However, it’s Amy’s songwriting that commands the stage. Her voice is a nuanced instrument best paired with a strong lyrical hook, evidenced by honky tonk gems like “Here I Am” and “Radio On” — hard-driving, foot-tappings tunes with country soul that puts the current Nashville radio crop to shame.

That’s not to say McCarley can be narrowly categorized; Jet Engines is sonically diverse while maintaining a coherent thread throughout. The title track segues seamlessly between a swampy blues verse and a dynamic, melodically memorable chorus. The anthemic “Hands Tied” is probably the most pop-oriented track, recalling Tracy Chapman at her radio-friendly rootsiest. Amy McCarley could easily take her music in any one of these directions and create a name for herself; hopefully she continues to follow the more eclectically rewarding muse that yielded Jet Engines.

6-String Web Roundup, May 2014 Edition

It’s been a while since I posted a roundup. May was kind of a slow month for guitars on the net, but there were a few gems…

2014 is proving an epic year for celebrity guitar auctions. George Harrison’s refinished 1962 Rickenbacker 425, the jangly tones of which can be heard on “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” sold for $657,000.

Led Zeppelin is being sued for allegedly stealing the iconic opening guitar riff from “Stairway to Heaven.” No word on whether the final verdict will affect the continued butchering of said riff in guitar shops worldwide.

Seems that everyone is trying to reinvent the electric guitar pickup this year. The folks at Dialtone Pickups — a company founded by a PhD plasma physicist — are rolling out a new design with tone-tweaking wheels built into the pickup cover. Plasma!

Fender Musical Instrument Corporation finally let go of the Guild brand, which has been on life support for some years now. The company rolled out some cool retro-inspired models this past year; hopefully Cordoba Music Group maintains the positive trend.

It was a good month for lost guitar reunions. Fretboard Journal has a nice article (with video and gorgeous pictures) about Bill Frisell reuniting with an ES-175 he foolishly sold in his youth, while Zakk Wylde recovered a favorite bullseye Les Paul from a Chicago pawn shop.

Step aside Esteban! Keith Urban is apparently the new king of HSN television guitar retail. 22,000 guitar packages sold in 8 hours. Yes, 22 with three zeroes. Guess we’ll be hearing a lot more of the “Stairway to Heaven” riff…

Ah, hometown Albuquerque. Where car thieves and cops duel with electric guitars. WAAANTED…Dead or Aliiive!


Ron Carter’s Low End Theory

“Yes my man Ron Carter is on the bass” — I’m not too ashamed to admit that my introduction to bassist Ron Carter came via A Tribe Called Quest. That was probably ten years ago, and I wasn’t listening to much jazz at the time. Little did I know that “Verses from the Abstract” was just the (Q-)tip of the Ron Carter iceberg; the man has anchored a ton of groundbreaking music (check out any recording by the second great Miles Davis quintet), claiming over 2000 album credits.

I was lucky enough to catch Ron Carter and his Golden Striker Trio this past weekend at Bohemian Caverns. Carter is still on top of his game at 77 years young, holding down the low end with some of the most distinctive and emotive lines ever plucked on four strings. The current lineup includes Donald Vega on piano and Russell Malone on guitar. Malone’s signature bluesy lead lines and hard-swinging comping have made him an in-demand sideman for the likes of Sonny Rollins and Diana Krall; not surprisingly, he’s masterfully adept at responding to Carter’s subtle harmonic cues. Ron Carter is always in his element opposite guitar players — check out Alone Together with Jim Hall or the 2006 eponymous trio recording with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian.

Photo: Andre Silvestre


Reelin’ in the Years

400537561_05d296bd3e_zThere is a thoughtful post on No Depression regarding B.B. King, whose 88 years of living the blues has really started to show in recent years. The man is a living testament to American music history and a national treasure, but I have to agree with the gentle suggestion of the post’s author — that B.B.’s inner circle should be nudging him toward retirement from the road. The first time I saw King in 2002 was inspiring; the man electrified the house with an extended set of his signature urban blues, coaxing syrupy bends from Lucille and commanding a first-rate road band. By stark contrast, the last time I caught B.B. in 2010, he only barely made it through a forty minute headlining set, at times rambling through tired schtick and only strangling a handful of halting notes from his Gibson. I walked away from the show with a sad realization that it was probably the last time I would hear King in person; it was like seeing a family member slowly fading, and wishing you could have one more opportunity — however brief — to experience their former self.

At the same time, it’s pretty clear that B.B. truly loves the life he lives, and it must be exceedingly difficult to set that passion aside, no matter how much your body and mind resist. At the end of the day, the decision is his to make — I just hope B.B. opts soon for some well-earned rest and relaxation, before the road life finally catches up with his health.

On a more uplifting note, a series of short interview clips with jazz guitar legend Ed Bickert recently cropped up on Vimeo; the clips appear to be previews of a larger project in progress. Bickert, now 81, retired from the jazz scene more than a decade ago. Interviews with the tele-wielding master of harmony are rare, and much of his catalog is now out of print. In the clips, Ed discusses his development as a player, technique, career highlights, and even spends a little time with his signature guitar in hand. It’s reassuring to see that someone is collecting some oral history from Bickert, who has quietly inspired the comping of many a jazz picker.

Photo: Daniele Dalledonne


Ready for the Spring: “The Second Hand” by Susan Gibson

The Second Hand opens with an energetic live reading of Susan GIbson’s Top-40 masterpiece, the coming-of-age anthem “Wide Open Spaces.” It’s the song that put her on the songwriting map (and the Dixie Chicks on the path to country mega-stardom), and Gibson indulges her audience by playing the song at every show. Indeed, loyal fans who turn out at every opportunity to catch Susan at a house concert, songwriter circle, or dive bar will find much to love on The Second Hand.

But it’s also fitting that the setlist gets “Wide Open Spaces” out of the way at the start. It’s a great song, but Susan has spent more than a decade crafting great songs that share (and usually exceed) the qualities that made “Spaces” such a hit — authenticity, wit, and themes just about anyone with a heartbeat can relate to. On the album’s title track, Gibson sings that “It’s been a nuclear winter, and I’m ready for the spring.” Like most of her songwriting, the quip works on several levels. Whether eagerly awaiting relief from the endless 2014 polar vortex, or the bone chill of a relationship gone bad, Susan Gibson has a cathartic verse to help thaw your soul.

There’s a lot of music to be heard on The Second Hand, which is as much a career retrospective as a live album; the 17-song disc is a great starting point for the uninitiated. Fortunately, the producers also left a little room for between-song storytelling, which is a big part of the Susan Gibson live draw. Susan has weathered some tough life experiences the past few years, experiences many of us can relate to and look forward to empathizing with in her songwriting. A tune like “Best of You” — inspired by the strength of cancer survivors — stands on its own, but is rendered all the more powerful when Gibson candidly shares the backstory.

Finally, it’s gratifying to hear Susan’s tunes fully realized with an ace pickup band. We imagine singer-songwriters to be lone wolves, and Susan certainly plays her fair share of solo gigs. However, most relish the idea of fronting their own band, if only gigs and income would permit. The Second Hand lineup — featuring Billy Masters on lead guitar, David Carroll on bass, and Ray Rodriguez on drums — complements Gibson superbly throughout, lending sonic dimension while giving the songs plenty of room to breathe. The Second Hand stands among those rare concert recordings that successfully capture the energy and spontaneity of a great live set, though that shouldn’t be surprising coming from an artist who so consistently delivers — gig after gig, song after song.

Check out this post on my No Depression page.

All Thawed Out


I’m officially back from my winter blogging hiatus, with a backlog of posts waiting for prime time. I like to think my excuses were legitimate — foremost among them being preparation for my first gig in at least eight years! My jazz band masterclass performed for the first time last week at Jazzy’s in Bowie, Maryland. The repertoire included tunes by Wayne Shorter, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Andy Timmons, and I was using all my free time to get my chops up to speed. I’m looking forward to a few more gigs this summer.

I also vacationed to New York City a couple weeks ago, which included a few guitar-themed diversions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently hosting an amazing collection of 35 early American guitars, including an assortment of pre-Civil War Martins (the earliest known Martin, from 1834, is pictured above). The exhibit was clearly designed with input from guitar geeks, because the descriptions included detailed technical analysis of the instruments — particularly the evolution of C.F. Martin’s bracing pattern from the Spanish-style fan to the X-brace reinforcing the top of most contemporary steel strings.

The other highlight of the trip was catching Pat Martino’s organ trio at Birdland. This was my second opportunity to see Martino live, and I was once again blown away; the man’s combination of old-school soul and awe-inspiring chops is unmatched. Besides being a legendary picker, Pat has a fascinating backstory that makes his music all the more inspiring. I waited for an autograph after the show, and he’s also one of the warmest and most likable musicians you’ll ever meet. Besides catching him live, make sure to pick up Martino’s latest release, a (formerly) bootleg live recording from 1969 appropriately titled Young Guns.


A New Year with Campy’s “Dream Dictionary”

Only two months in, 2014 has already seen a raft of great guitar album releases (stay tuned for more highlights). Regular readers should know by now that I’m a huge Jim Campilongo fan and was eagerly awaiting the January 21st release of Dream Dictionary. It’s been a month since release day, and it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that I still have the disc in heavy rotation.

Dream Dictionary is consistent with Jim’s creative trajectory since American Hips (2003). Operating largely in a trio format (Dictionary features Josh Dion on drums and Chris Morrissey on bass), Campy picks, bends, and squawks his way through twelve tunes that demonstrate his uncanny ability to infuse the well-trodden soundscapes of Americana with a beautifully eclectic and instantly recognizable electric imprint. Fans of the guitarist’s output over the past decade should find themselves in familiar territory as Campilongo navigates through reverb-laden slow burners (“The Past is Looking Brighter and Brighter”), loping snap-and-pop blues excursions (“Nang Nang”), and the requisite guest appearance by Norah Jones (“Here I Am”), a frequent collaborator vis-à-vis the Little Willies.

While Dream Dictionary isn’t a radical departure, there is evidence of an evolution in Jim’s sound that was starting to become readily apparent on his last album, Orange (2010). Jim’s early recordings with the 10 Gallon Cats were rooted in country and western swing; subsequent trio recordings relaxed the breakneck tempos and explored moodier, jazzier territory. Jim certainly hasn’t abandoned those influences in recent years, but his affinity for the more eccentric capabilities of the electric guitar – feedback, overdrive, pinch harmonics, and microtonal bends – has increasingly taken center stage since Orange. Most guitarists employ these techniques for novelty effect; Campilongo, by stark contrast, has made them central to his musical vocabulary.

In a recent interview, Campy noted that he had been listening to a lot of 70s-era Miles Davis while writing the material for Dream Dictionary, manifested in the slow, sinister funk of the album’s opener (“Cock and Bull Story”) and the meditative title track. However, to a greater degree than any previous Campilongo album, this one seems to channel a more fundamental influence – the late Roy Buchanan. Roy’s imprint on Jim has always been evident, but Dictionary takes the listener in darker and more intensely contemplative directions than ever before, forging a soulful connection to the music that recalls the best of Buchanan’s early recordings (before the tragic picker’s inner demons took a toll on the consistency of his output). Reassuringly, Dream Dictionary closes with the upbeat and playful “Pie Party,” a galloping country romp that reminds us of Jim Campilongo’s lighter side and his consistent ability to connect with audiences on multiple levels — both musical and emotional.

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.


Back in the Saddle (100th Post!!!)

I’ve resolved to play more acoustic guitar in the New Year — both because I have a lovely instrument that deserves attention, and because it’s a great way to build up strength and dexterity. There’s no reason most of what I’m learning jazz-wise can’t be picked on my Martin. Moreover, after long hours of practice on a set of acoustic 0.013s, I’ll be that much more fleet-fingered on my electric at band practice.

The ol’ D-28 was overdue for a new set of bronzewounds. With the old strings off, it also made sense to do some long-neglected saddle maintenance. As the pic above shows, years of heavy strings had worn some pretty deep grooves. Ideally, the strings on an acoustic should break cleanly across the ridge of the saddle; grooves are inevitable over time, but if they get too deep, tone and intonation can be effected.

I installed my Martin’s current saddle back in college; it’s made of fossil mammoth ivory, a material prized for strength, consistency, and (most importantly) tone. Mammoth ivory saddles are pricey, so I wanted to keep this one intact if at all possible. That meant pulling it from the bridge slot and carefully taking it down from the top with my trusty mill file. I was also aiming to lower the action a shade, which gave me some wiggle room to really get below the grooves. Slow and steady wins the race — I filed a little bit at a time, making sure to maintain the original radius and curvature (most good saddles are carefully shaped to compensate for intonation).

And voila! I was quite pleased with the final product; the saddle looks great and my guitar plays better than I can remember in a long time. You can see the saddle is getting low, which suggests this guitar probably has a neck reset in its not-too-distant future (an eventual requirement for every steel-string).