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.

You did what to that guitar?!

There’s a 1968 Telecaster currently for sale on reverb.com that, at first glance, exhibits serious mojo. The instrument is well-worn, Springsteen-style, with an aftermarket Charlie Christian-style neck pickup. CC pickups are hip, and ’68 teles aren’t all that rare, so I’m inclined to forgive the modding of a vintage piece. However, a glance through the photos accompanying the listing turns up a cringe-worthy pic of the routing job — the body was absolutely mangled to accommodate the pickup. They did what to that guitar?!

Fellow pickers, let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone. I submit to you Exhibit A, my American Special Tele.

Three years ago I decided to install a PAF-style neck humbucker for jazz work, which the guitar was theoretically routed to accommodate. Upon receiving the pickup (a Duncan Seth Lover) in the mail, I was troubled to find that the factory route could not accommodate the pickup’s vintage-correct elevated mounting tabs. A wiser man would have returned the pickup and sought out a pickup with non-elevated tabs — or taken the guitar to a professional with the right tools for additional routing. But I want my jazz tone nooow. So out comes my electric drill and a wood chisel. Ouch. The job (consisting of two less-than-symmetrical routes on either side of the pickup cavity) isn’t nearly as ugly as the ’68, but I’m still not proud of the hasty workmanship. That said, the pickup fits now and everything is neatly hidden under the pickguard. A guitar without scars is a guitar that hasn’t been loved. Who am I to judge?

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.

 

6-String Web Roundup, December 2013 Edition

Happy Holidays from NewOldStock, sharing the best of the guitar web this merry month!

The Bob Dylan Newport Folk Strat sold for $965,000, breaking the previous record held by Eric Clapton’s “Blackie.” The lucky bidder remains anonymous.

The Winter NAMM show is coming, which means a month of new gear announcements! Early press releases include:

  • Paul Reed Smith is expanding its affordable U.S.-made S2 line with the addition of the S2 Singlecut and S2 Custom 22.
  • Fender has added the 12W, 2×10 Vaporizer to its “Pawn Shop” line of 50s-inspired amps. The $399 combo is the first in the series to sport reverb.
  • Gibson is rolling out twenty-seven new models for 2014, including a raft of Les Pauls to celebrate the company’s 120th anniversary. Robot tuners and exotic pickup switching options abound.
  • Electro-Harmonix is now offering the “Soul Food” overdrive, which is designed to put Klon Centaur-inspired tones within reach of the working guitarist.

Slate, of all publications, posted a great explanation of how the ubiquitous wah-wah pedal functions. Bow-chicka-bow-wow.

I usually tune out the Grammys, but it was reassuring to see a who’s who of classic rock guitar bands among this year’s nominees — Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, and the Rolling Stones all received well-deserved nods.

Speaking of guitar gods, Keith Richards turned 70 on December 18th. It’s hard to believe that he’s been at it for more than fifty years now; you can read about some of the highlights in his highly readable and entertaining autobiography. So many great riffs.

Shredders unite! For only a couple grand, you too can spend a week in August 2014 with Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, Andy Timmons, and Mike Keneally as part of the G4 Experience. Sweeping arpeggios will rock the peaceful forested hills of Cambria, CA.

On a sad note, legendary pickup designer, guitarist, and all-round nice guy Bill Lawrence passed away last month. Bill earned his reputation through a combination of innovation, word-of-mouth marketing, and emminently reasonable prices — contenders in the increasingly crowded boutique pickup market can still learn a thing or two from the humble pioneer.

Finally, it always pays to protect your guitar with a quality case. Also, you never know when it might come in handy as an improvised cold weather survival shelter.

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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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.

Dialing in Tube Screamer Tone

This is probably the best explanation I’ve heard on how to dial in an Ibanez TS9 (or any overdrive for that matter). The gist: you want to begin by dialing in a neutral setting (with no gain) that colors the amp’s sound as little as possible when the pedal is engaged. From there, start dialing in additional volume, tone, and drive as needed. My sense is that most players (myself included) tend to turn up the drive knob at the outset, erring on the side of too much dirt and burying their sound in the stage mix. After watching this video, I dug out my Analog Man-modded TS9DX and rediscovered the pedal.

I’ve learned over the years — as much from listening to other players as myself — that less gain is usually the path to tonal nirvana. I think most of us over-estimate the amount of drive our favorite players dialed in on stage or in the studio. Cats like Jimmy Page, Angus Young, and Stevie Ray Vaughan primarily relied on the distorted sound of overdriven tubes, which is relatively mild by comparison to what most pedals have on tap — even at ear-splitting volumes. Give one of your favorite guitar albums (of the non-metal variety) a good listen, preferably through a solid pair of headphones. Focus on the guitar, and you may be surprised just how clean the fundamental tone is; the sound is memorable because the chops aren’t buried under an indistinguishable blanket of fuzz.