You did what to that guitar?!

There’s a 1968 Telecaster currently for sale on 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?

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…

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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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!


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


2013 Track of the Year

I’m working on a couple “best of” album lists for 2013, including best guitar and best Americana albums (to be cross-posted on No Depression). In the mean time, I’ll share my favorite track of the year.

There’s not a guitar to be heard on “When Love Was King” from Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. It’s no matter, because every guitarist picking a ballad or slow blues can learn something from the man’s careful phrasing, vocal timbre, and masterful use of dynamics. Guitarists often try to emulate aspects of the human voice on their instrument, but rarely do they achieve anything quite this sublime. Happy New Year!

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.

“Joy Spring” or a Joyless Frethand Mess?

So “Joy Spring” by the late great Clifford Brown is actually a pretty cool tune. The title is a little ironic given the temperature plunge in DC the past couple weeks. Also, Brown was a trumpet player and clearly didn’t write with the fretboard in mind. There’s just no ergonomically friendly way to approach the melody; you’re either stretching to grab the intervals, making liberal use of the weak 4th finger (pinky), and/or shifting position every few measures. In fact, taking on “Joy Spring” — or any tune written for another instrument — is a great exercise for guitarists, albeit with considerable frustration potential.

I’m working the tune because I was recently bumped up a level in the jazz band masterclass program, which feels really good given how much time I’ve been putting in on the instrument. It does mean a whole new repertoire though. In addition to “Joy Spring,” the group is tackling other timeless standards including “Witch Hunt,” “Nothing Personal,” “How High the Moon,” and “Moanin’.” These tunes span the swing, bop, post-bop, and modern eras, and are each challenging in their own way. As a guitarist in an ensemble context, my role is primarily rhythmic and harmonic. However, on “Joy Spring” in particular, I’ve set a personal goal of being able to keep up with the horns in belting out the melody.

Following up on my last post, the New Yorker has one of the best Jim Hall tributes I’ve read so far. Like one of Jim’s solos, it hits all the right notes and gets straight to the point. Also, if you don’t yet have any Jim Hall albums in your collection, any of the collaborations cited in the essay are a great place to start (I’m partial to “The Bridge” by Sonny Rollins).

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…