Archive for the Guitars Category

Comparing Guitar Multi-Effects

Posted in Effects, Guitars, Reviews on August 7, 2016 by John Dante
This is a personal comparison of three multi-effect units I have bought in the last few years. I normally use a large pedalboard with a collection of discrete pedals, but I also wanted an all-in-one multi-effect unit just for convenience. The idea of this article is just to record what my experience was with these units, which I liked best, and why. I don’t explore all the features or try to do a scientific feature comparison. The three units I tried were:
 
  • Line 6 POD HD500
  • Boss GT-100
  • TC Electronic Nova System
 

TC Electronic unit Nova System

The Nova System sounds like a great device when you read about it. I got one after it was recommended to me by someone. The idea of an analogue overdrive/distortion module (the Nova Drive module) before a range of excellent digital effects sounded like it should be excellent. The reality (for me) was however, very disappointing. All the digital effects worked very well, but the Nova Drive unit sounded awful to my ears. Nothing I did could rid it of a nasty fizzing character which I disliked intensely. The unit is solidly built, though, and if the front end module sounds good to your ears, it’s a good unit. It stands a little higher from the ground than other units, but this works quite well ergonomically. There are two operating modes for the footswitches. In mode 1, the footswitches are used to switch different modules in and out of the circuit. In mode 2, you can select patches. I only used it in mode 1.
Nova-front
Pictures from TC Electronic Website
Nova-back
Apart from the Nova Drive, I liked this unit. It feels professional, and has a proper internal PSU rather than a flimsy wall wart. It also has a good midi implementation which could be very useful. I considered keeping it and just using a Tubescreamer in front of it, but that would rather defeat the purpose of a multi-effect unit, so it went back.

Line 6 HD500

I got this a couple of years ago, and used it for a while before going back to my discrete pedalboard. It’s solidly built, though it has a wall wart rather than built in power. There is an excellent range of connections on the back, and it is ergonopmically sensible and looks professional. It’s OK to programme directly on the unit, but also very easy to programme from a computer.
The software leaves something to be desired, in that it is fairly slow, and I had a lot of problems with the windows version on an old XP machine. With a Macbook it works more reliably, and runs more quickly. It’s not totally intuitive to use – copying from one patch location to another is not obvious, for example. One extremely annoying thing is that the software checks a ‘serial number chip’ in the HD500, apparently to see if you are using non-Line6 hardware with their precious software (I can’t imagine anyone doing this). On my unit, I only discovered this after a few months, as I had been using it as a floor unit alone. When I first fired up the software, it reported that the hardware (the HD500) was not genuine Line 6 hardware. I called Line 6, and they were singularly unhelpful, and told me I should just take it back to the dealer. The dealer gave me the name of a repair company, and the repair company told me it would cost about £120 to have the serial number chip replaced. The unit itself still works fine, just has this issue with Line 6 building in something unnecessary.
 
pod-software
 
All that said, it does still work, and will still allow itself to be programmed using a computer. It just sneezes out an annoying error message every now and then. Updating the firmware was doable, but very messy.
 
Sounds. The HD500 sounds very good, with excellent amp and effect emulations. You can build complex chains, including split chains, and get some great sounds out of it. Plug it into a clean amp, and it’s a very servicable combination for studio or small gigs. When you create a patch, you can assign particular effects to one of four foot-switches. This makes a patch very versatile, as you can just kick phase or wah in when you want it, leaving the rest of the tone as it is.
pod-front
Pictures: the internet
pod-back
 
The HD500 has a massive selection of amp models and a very wide range of effects. You can get more or less any sound you want out of this device, include HOG-like organ sounds and some very weird alien guitar noises. It has a huge range of connectivity as well, including proper XLR balanced outputs as well as quarter inch jacks. There is even a microphone input for use an additional signal in vocoder effects among other uses.
 
I have a lot of Line 6 products, including earlier PODs and POD Pro rack units in my studio. By and large, I have found them to be good, solid performers. I wanted to like the HD500, and in many ways I do. I’ve used it quite a bit, but because of the odd ’serial chip’ fault and the disappontingly lacklustre support from Line 6, I lack confidence in it. Line 6 have produced more recent pedalboards than this one, including the HD500X and now the iPad-edited Firehawk and the fantastic looking Helix (which I would love to try, but cannot afford). Maybe I just had a bad one, but I am just that bit less inclined to buy another LIne 6 unit.

Boss GT-100

After losing confidence in the Line 6 HD500, I went back to my old-fashioned pedalboard and stayed exclusievly with it for 18 months. Then a situation came up when it would be handy to have a single programmable multi-effect, so I dusted off the HD500. It worked fine, but again I had silly errors to do with the serial number chip, which reminded me of why I stopped using it in the first place. I decided to see what else might fit the bill. As mentioned above, Line 6 have a range of much more updated boards, but I decided to look elsewhere. I have loads of Boss pedals, and every one of which has been ultra-reliable, some of them for decades. I therefore decided to see Boss had on offer. The GT-100 looked like the one in their range that would serve my purpose.
 
boss-front
 
Pictures: Boss US
 
boss-back
 
This board uses the Boss COSM modelling technology (but don’t ask me for any kind of technical explanation of what that is). I liked it from the moment I started using it, and even found that many of the pre-loaded patches sounded great. I plugged it into my Macbook with a USB cable and downloaded the editor software, and that worked first time as well, and is pretty straightforward to use. The board is actually very easy to edit standalone, so you don’t need a computer, but if you have a session of tweaking sounds and ordering the patches in a way which is useful, it’s a lot easier to do that standing up than constantly bending down to the board. Yes, I know I could just put the board on a table, but this is more elegant.
 
Sounds. Personally, I think it sounds great. It has just as wide a range of sounds as the Line 6 HD500, really usable workhorse patches all the way to off the wall weird and wonderful things. I have used it in a studio session with the left channel plugged directly into the mixing desk, and the right one plugged into a small monitor amp. Worked fine, and sounded very good, very much like a miked up guitar amp – but without any ear-damaging volume in the process. The GT-100 has almost as much connectivity as the Line 6 unit, and feels at least as robust. I feel a lot more confidence in using this board.

Conclusion

There may be more recent multi-effect boards that are far better (perhaps the Line 6 Helix will be, if I ever get my hands on one). However, until I get a chance to try the newer generation, the Boss GT-100 is an excellent sounding workhorse which I have found myself using more and more.

The Grunging of the Red Marlin

Posted in Guitars on January 17, 2011 by jacquesdante

Sharon and Wayne gave me an old Marlin Slammer which Wayne had left under the bed at his Mum’s house for the last 20 years or so.  I had wanted a nasty old junkshop type guitar for a while, so I could hack it up and turn it into something for slide blues.  This Marlin was perfect.

I’ve never seen guitar electrics quite like what was inside this – the pots are weird looking things and the pickups look like they were made in a science class at school in some Russian client nation.  They didn’t sound all that good either, not to my ears anyway, so I pulled off the whole scratchplate assembly.

With a chisel, I hacked out more space in the pickup rout so I could fit in a P90 type pickup from Iron Gear, in a humbucker sized casing.  This just happens to be the nearest spare pickup I had lying around.  I also had a strat scratchplate which wasn’t right for one of my other guitars, so I butchered that as well, not bothering to be be neat about it.  The electrics are now very simple, just a volume control.  There’s a lot of space inside the guitar now.  It sounds OK as a slide guitar, which was the main objective, and looks like a

nasty hack job, which pretty much goes with the sound.

It does sound quite good through a fuzzbox into an overdriven valve amp.  Great slide sound, with quite a lot of definition.  I left off the bass E string and tuned it to an open G with the remaining 5 strings.  With this type of tuning, it is possible to quite easily create some basic slide blues type of sounds.

This is what it sounds like (video below – pictures and the soundtrack is an example of what it sounds like when played through a Fender HotRod Deluxe and Boss Overdrive pedal with a glass bottleneck)

Drop Tuning

Posted in Guitars, Music, Technique on May 3, 2010 by jacquesdante

In my quest to learn to play the blues well in all sorts of different ways, I have been learning how to play slide on a guitar with drop tuning. There are many ways to tune a guitar, but one popular one seems to be ‘Open G’ tuning where the guitar is tuned to a Major G chord with a D at the bottom – DGDGBD. In this, the E, A and Top E strings are all dropped down a tone from standard tuning. Once done, I grabbed a piece of glass tube and started moving it up and down the fret board with my left hand while picking strings with my right. Surprisingly, it started sounding a bit like Delta Blues… though I need to practice a bit more.

Still, it’s a lot easier than it looks to get a a nice sound out of a guitar this way, though probably a long haul to become a real master of it. I guess the old blues masters originally did things this way because it is not all that hard to build an accompaniment to a song like this, and if you break a string or two, it doesn’t matter all that much. Years ago, I used to have a glass specimen jar that was perfect as a bottleneck. Sadly, they make them out of plastic now, so I had to buy a bottleneck from a music shop, which felt a bit institutionalised and nowhere near makeshift enough.

There is a good page on this kind of playing to be found here. The only thing I don’t like is that it uses tablature to write music examples, and I hate tablature.

Johannes et Jacobus Thinline Telecaster (JJ005)

Posted in Guitars, Technique on April 4, 2010 by jacquesdante

Finished it on 1st April 2010 (the picture above shows the finished body being fitted and wired), and spent the next two evenings setting it up properly.  I decided to build a thinline because I like Telecasters and I don’t have one in this style.  I also wanted to try out some Bare Knuckles pickups without mucking up another guitar.

This is another partscaster – made from parts which were manufactured by someone else.  I buy bodies which have been pre-cut and routed but left otherwise unfinished.  This just saves me some time (and expenditure on machine tools), while leaving it entirely up to me what the finished guitar looks like.  I also buy pre-built necks, but drill out the machine head holes and finish setup of the necks myself.

On this guitar, the wood was rather nice.  It was a slightly more up-market body than I have bought in the past, so I decided not to bother staining it.  It didn’t need any grain filler either, just a light sanding and rub down with wire wool.  I then used about ten or twelve coats of french polish to finish it off.  The body came from chguitars who sell stuff on eBay, and I think the neck came from axesrus.co.uk.  The machine heads and bridge are Wilkinson and also came from axesrus along with most of the other hardware.

The angle of the neck pocket was not quite right for the neck, so I had to shim it a bit.  You can’t tell from any of the photos, but I had to put a shim under the heel of the neck (nearest the edge of the guitar) rather than the end of the neck pocket, as the neck needed to be raised slightly to allow proper setup.  I cut the shim from an old credit card instead of snippingout brass sheet, as I didn’t have any brass sheet the right thickness.  It works fine…

For this guitar I chose to mix a stratocaster neck with a Telecaster body, simply because I prefer the look of the Strat head.

The electronics are about as simple as you can make them.  I hardly ever use the tone controls on the guitar when I play, though I do use the volume control a lot to vary the amount of signal hitting the front end of the amplifier or pedal.  JJ005 therefore has two pickups, one switch and one volume control.  The switch gives you neck, both or bridge pickup, just as a standard telecaster switch would.  The volume just varies the output level of whatever is switched in. Because the elcetronics are so simple, I put the output jack on the front panel and left the side of the guitar unmolested by a drill or router.

As I said earlier, the pickups are from Bare Knuckles, a Devon-based company who make pickups by hand and have a very good reputation.  I can vouch for the fact that the reputation is well-deserved.  These pickups are beautifully made, and sound wonderful.  I chose the Brown Sugar matched set, which are a bit ‘hotter’ than standard Telecaster pickups.  They sound fantastic.  Tim Mills at Bare Knuckles was very helpful when I was deciding which pickups to select.  His pickups come with a free set of strings (.10 E Rotosound, which I quite like) and a lifetime warranty.

This is the neck pickup, set into a simple metal mounting plate rather than a large scratchplate.  Below is the bridge pickup mounted into a Wilkinson standard Tele bridge with compensating saddles (this is an excellent bridge by the way).  The last picture shows the control panel which is extremely simple indeed.

The setup took me quite a while, as I had to unship the neck five times before I was satisfied that the shim was correct.  I adjusted the truss rod slightly, and got the intonation correct quite quickly – one advantage of these very simple Telecaster bridges.  The string height adjustment needed quite a bit of fine tuning, and there is still a bit of ‘sitaring’ on the higher register strings (E B and G).  This is caused by secondary sympathetic vibrations of some sort.  It is often solved by increasing the breakover angle at one or other end othe string.  On this Tele, the breakover at the bridge is fine, so I experimented a bit and found that the breakover at the nut needed to be increased a bit.  For this I will need a couple of string trees which have now been ordered.  The nut is a single piece of brass which was filed to be an exact fit in the neck.  The string slots are a nice fit for the strings, so that’s not likely to be the cause of the sitaring – sometimes a too wide slot can be problematical.

I’m pretty happy with this guitar – each one I make seems to be a tad better than the previous one, which rather proves the old saying that practice makes perfect.

The Correct “Black Pearl” Guitar Circuit

Posted in Guitars, Technique on December 14, 2009 by jacquesdante

This is the correct circuit diagram we used for the ‘Black Pearl’ Telecaster we built.  The circuit I originally posted is not accurate.  This one correctly shows switching between series and parallel configuration for the stacked humbuckers.  The other diagram showed switching between single and double coil (which can also be interesting). 

This circuit uses two ‘stacked Humbuckers’ from Seymour Duncan.  These are double coil pickups with the coils stacked on top of each other rather than side by side.  They are packaged to drop into a standard Telecaster pretty much without modification.  However, they do have separate fly leads for each of the coils, and this allows you to experiment with putting the coils in different configurations – single or double, in and out of phase, series or parallel.  You can do this just by using switches – I used DPDT switches that are attached to the potentiometers, so the guitar does not have extra holes drilled in it. 

There is no tone control in this circuit.  I hardly ever use tone controls on the guitar itself, preferring to adjust things on the amplifier or with an FX pedal.  However, these pickups allow for a wide range of tone anyway.  Playing around with the switches in this circuit will take you from bright and punchy to thick and grungy (or whatever adjectives you prefer).  I will try and upload some example sound files soon, demonstrating the range of sound available from the pickups alone.  Each pickup has a potentiometer in circuit, and with the pickup switch in the centre position you can mix the output of both pickups to vary the tone even more. 

Electric Circuit - Black Pearl

Sorry the schematic looks rather ugly – I used Dia for Windows instead of Visio or Smartdraw and I am not sure yet how to get the best out of it.  Of the three applications I use for drawing, Visio is the best.  Dia (which is free software) and Smartdraw are both excellent programmes, but each has a fatal flaw.  Dia cannot rotate shapes (a limitation of GTK apparently) and Smartdraw 2009 has really crappy connectors that make untidy lines between shapes.  Maybe they fixed it in SD 2010, but I am loathe to pay $99 to find out and their website does not show the differences between 2009 and 2010 versions. 

Guitar Wiring Diagram Shape Library

Posted in Guitars, Studio, Technique on December 10, 2009 by jacquesdante

I like drawing wiring diagrams for the guitars that I build, and I use both Visio and Smartdraw to create these diagrams. I thought someone would have crated a library of shapes for guitar wiring diagrams, but I could not find one on the internet anywhere. I therefore made my own. I usually use Smartdraw as that is the programme I have on my studio computer, so I first created a Smartdraw library. It is cobbled together from other Smartdraw libraries plus some symbols for pickups etc which I created myself.  With this library you can create simple guitar wiring diagrams such as this:

Guitar-volume

You can find my Smartdraw Guitar Wiring Shapes Library here. I will try and upload a Visio version some time soon.

Gretsch Electromatic G5120 Hollow Body Guitar

Posted in Guitars, Reviews on November 26, 2009 by jacquesdante

Gretsch 5120 11sThe Gretsch G6120 and the Gretsch Country Gentleman are the classic rockabilly guitars, and have been used by many different people.  They are very expensive though, starting at 1500 pounds and going on up in leaps and bounds.  An original 50s Gretsch costs many thousands.  One of the most well-known Grestch-playing guitarists is Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.  Pete Townshend used a Grestch G6120 on the studio recordings of Quadrophenia, and you can see one in pictures of his line-up quite a lot.  It has a very respectable heritage.Gretsch 5120 04s

For those who cannot afford to pay the price of a small car for a guitar, Gretsch have produced a budget line, the G5xxx Electromatic guitars.  For just under 500 quid, you can get a G5120 which looks at first sight to be identical to a G6120, but at 25-30% of the price.  Obviously Gretsch have to cut some corners to produce a much cheaper guitar, so they manufacture the Electromatic series in Korea to cut down on labour costs.  However, there are quite a few other corners cut as well.  I played this guitar without an amp in a music shop, and thought it played really nicely – it has a slick and playable neck and the full-size  hollow body is solid and comfortable to wear with a strap or just holding the guitar on your knee when sitting down.  When I got it home I eagerly plugged it into my Fender Deville and was hugely disappointed.

TV Jones Pickup 01sThe pickups on the G5120 are humbucking pickups (often referred to as Gretschbuckers), and nothing special at all.  They lack tone and definition and really do not complement this basically OK guitar.  This is definitely not just a cheap G6120, it will need some work to make it fun and interesting to play.  I did some research and discovered that the top of the line Gretsch’s  now use TV Jones pickups, so I invested another 100 quid in the bridge version of these (TV Classic, English mount 2) to see if it improves things.  I haven’t had time to install it yet, but will do so soon.

Gretsch 5120 07sHaving been so disappointed in the sound, I was not surprised to find  some other things to deplore.  The machine heads are cheap crap, and don’t hold the guitar in tune even if you don’t use the Bigsby.  They are also not accurate and seem to have some play in them so it is difficult to get the guitar in tune to start with.  I will have to replace these as well (another 50 quid or so).  The bridge is also a bit pathetic.  It leans slightly forward towards the pickup, and the bottom is not contoured properly to fit the top of the guitar.  It has no locating pins and therefore needs careful Gretsch 5120 10spositioning every time you re-string the guitar.  I shall probably need  to replace this as well (another 50 quid?).  For some reason, the guitar is supplied with a little bit of packing foam separating the bridge from the body. You have to pretty much unstring the guitar to get rid of it, and then reposition the bridge exactly as was while you re-string it (or re-do the intonation yourself anyway. Gretsch 5120 05sGretsch supply odd strap buttons as well.  They seem to be a primitive sort of locking strap button, in that you can unscrew them from the body and then attach a strap by screwing the button back in through the strap hole.  I don’t like these either and will probably replace them with Marvel straplocks which I do like (another tenner).

Finally, the electrics are a bit counter intuitive.  I plugged the guitar into an MXR Dyna-Comp pedal, and when it is switched out the guitar has a nasty dull grungy humbucking sound.  When the compressor is switched in it goes quieter and much cleaner.  Exactly the same settings with a Strat give a huge burst of energy when the Dyna-comp is kicked into play.  Maybe it’s just me.  I need to figure out what each of the knobs is supposed to do and take a look at whether or not it can be improved when I install the new pickup.

Gretsch 5120 03s Gretsch 5120 02s

So, a great looking guitar, but out of the box a disappointment when plugged in.  I will need to spend another 200-300 quid on it to make it really playable (new pickups, new bridge, new straplocks, new machine heads).  It was already a bit pricey for a ‘budget’ guitar, and this just makes it rather expensive (around 750 quid) for what it is.  I hear that the Epiphone Wildkat does a better job by far, and costs about 350 pounds. I haven’t yet tried one so I can’t venture an opinion. I would also definitely like to try the new Epiphone Emperor Swingster as an alternative. I wouldn’t buy another Electromatic – I would rather save up a lot more money and get a genuine Gretsch G6120, and then only after rigorously testing it through an amplifier and inspecting the build.

Visit Gretsch.com for more information

A very useful Gretsch player community can be found in a forum at Gretsch-talk.com

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