I’ve spent much of this summer on the road, travel-caster in tow. Abu Dhabi is probably the furthest afield I’ve huffed my tele. It’s a worthwhile diversion when venturing outside the hotel feels like waltzing face-first into a blast furnace.

My post backlog is bursting at the seams. Coming attractions include the latest in premium plectrums, DIY pedal assembly, music reviews, and new vintage-style tuners for my Martin. Stay tuned, and stay cool!

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?

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.

Campilongo Album Preview

No, I didn’t obtain a secret bootleg of Dream Dictionary, the new Jim Campilongo album due out January 21st. But there is a great interview with Jim in the latest issue of Premier Guitar, in which he discusses the album and his creative process. And a live clip on YouTube of the title track. In the interview, Campilongo notes that he was inspired by Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way. The influence is evident on this tune, which reflects the meditative yet dynamic vibe of that album — while still bearing Campy’s indelible sonic stamp.

If you’re as anxious as I am for Dream Dictionary, I suggest biding your time with In A Silent Way. The all-star cast of post-bop and fusion luminaries includes a young John McLaughlin on guitar, whose bluesy lead lines and funky comping are interwoven throughout. While controversial with jazz critics at the time, it’s a more restrained statement by comparison to what followed in the form of Bitches Brew.

Frequent Flyer-caster Redux, Part 2

In Part 1 of Frequent Flyer-caster Redux, I wrote about my search for a more substantial neck for my travel tele. I eventually settled on an Allparts TMO-FAT model, which merges a vintage 1.625″ nut width with a beefy 1″ U-shape neck profile. The neck arrived unfinished and undrilled for hardware, providing me with an opportunity to once again test my novice lutherie skills.

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Weekend Test Drive: Pro Guitar Shop Edition

Fender 1958 Telecaster Reissue and Fender Total Tone Stratocasters Reviewed

I went to a wedding in Portland this past weekend, with some time to kill between festivities. Unbeknownst to me before I arrived, Portland is home to the Pro Guitar Shop showroom, located in the downtown Pearl District. Readers may be familiar with Pro Guitar Shop’s online presence, including their collection of YouTube demo videos in which drool-worthy boutique gear is put through its paces by Andy, gear exhibitor extraordinaire. Visitors to the Port City should definitely make some time for the showroom; the staff are great and the collection of pro guitars and amps on display is pretty spectacular.

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Brent Mason’s Hot Wired Session Playing

I have a soft spot for session players and sidemen. I’ve never been inclined to front a band, but I enjoy backing up a good leader on stage or in the studio. Country pickers know that Brent Mason is easily one of the most prolifically recorded guitarists in Nashville, with thousands of recordings and commercials to his credit, in addition to a slew of CMA Awards and Grammy nods. Hard copies of his out-of-print debut solo album, Hot Wired, fetch a pretty penny on the used market. Fortunately, the tracks were recently (though quietly) re-released in digital form, making Hot Wired accessible to the masses again.

Mason’s penchant for smooth jazz is arguably a little over-represented on the record, with tracks like “Cayman Moon” and “Blue Water Girl” sounding a bit dated in 2013. However, his virtuosic chicken picking on the title track and western swing-inspired tunes like “Sugarfoot Rag” and “Swing with a Sting” more than compensate. Listeners should also check out Smokin’ Section, a collection of tracks recorded with brother Randy in 2006. The album leans a little more decidedly toward country music, and the jazz tracks swing harder. Both albums are essential listening for aspiring masters of the Telecaster.

Interestingly, Paul Reed Smith recently picked up Brent as an endorser, releasing a bolt-on signature model. He had previously been affiliated with Valley Arts Guitars, endorsing a signature instrument inspired by Mason’s famous — and extensively modded — 1968 Telecaster. With a minibucker in the neck, strat pickup in the middle, and a B-Bender for pedal steel sounds, his #1 is the ultimate country session guitar. I’m sure Brent sounds like Brent on the new PRS, but I’m still partial to his classic Tele and Twin combo, featured on cuts like Alan Jackson’s 1993 hit “Mercury Blues” (the early Alan Jackson albums provide a great introduction to Mason’s output as a sideman).

Speaking of that ’68, check out this great vid of Brent and Randy tearing it up on the jazz standard “Cherokee”:

New Partscaster

Just finished assembling a new(ish) Telecaster. After a lot of effort trying to get the Frequent Flyer-caster to work for me, I just couldn’t get used to a few of its build and playability quirks — especially the narrow nut width. I initially set out to just replace the neck with an Allparts model of more conventional dimensions. That eventually led to the search for a new body to match, and ultimately the assembly of a whole new guitar. I’m sure my fellow gearheads out there can sympathize with the tendency for scope-creep on these projects. In any case, I’ll post again soon with more details on the project.

“Guitaresque” by Tony Savarino

Solo albums by hotshot electric guitarists can be a mixed bag. Some stand out as works of art that showcase the player as an individual artist; others are merely a platform for shameless pyrotechnic wankery. Fortunately, Guitaresqe by Boston-area guitarist Tony Savarino fits squarely in the first category.

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