THE GIGOLOGIST (WORD FILE FOR EDITING—No photos)
TIPS, TESTS, CONTROVERSY AND MORE CHUCKLES FROM OUR VERY OWN GUITAR-SLINGING GOOD HUMOR MAN--MAGIC FRANK
There are quite a few articles on stringing guitars. These essays are designed to help us prevent slippage. Some even attack the nature of the wind. Obviously, if you wind from the top of the machine head post toward the bottom, you increase the angle of the “break” as the string crosses the nut. I’ve seen articles warning about too steep an angle as well as too shallow an angle. If your headstock angles back, it mitigates the winding procedure. I have so many guitars (all are players; none sit unused) that I rarely bother with such details. Fortunately, none of my instruments have working trems. Keep in mind that I must change my strings (on multiple guitars) before every gig. No amount of cleaning or fancy coating can extend the life of my strings. Here’s why: I play quite hard. I don’t strum hard when playing rhythm but do pick hard when playing lead to push the amp’s input stage for the sake of my tone. I also choke the strings constantly and aggressively. If you run your finger under my e-string, up and down the neck, you’ll feel a little dent corresponding to the position of each fret! After one night! With maybe a dozen dents in my e-sting and b-strings and just slightly shallower dents on the G, I get them off before they have a chance to break. I still insist on immaculate strings anyway. I employ slurs (slides) and the string must feel like it’s polished or my chops suffer. I’d never use a finger-tip lubricant (do people actually use these?) or my fingers would slide off the strings when choking (the string, not me). Here are a couple of pointers on keeping the strings shiny and new. The hip remedy is naphtha or lighter fluid. If you spill a bit on your fingerboard, no big deal. I don’t run a rag over the strings en mass. I wet the cloth (a small spot) and pinch the string hard and slide the cloth up and down one string at a time. Surely, many of you guys do the same. Actually, I usually use denatured alcohol. Keep alcohol off your finish. It probably won’t hurt anything but it can temporarily soften lacquer. If you like your stings to feel like brand new, assuming your stings aren’t dented like mine, pinch a bit of Scotchbrite pad or 0000 steel wool in your finger tips and polish the string with that. Keep the steel wool away from your pickups! If you do get some shavings on your pickup, use some sticky tape to pull it off. By the way, you can buff your frets and fingerboard with the 0000 steel wool as well but go with the grain and don’t do this with a maple board unless you want to remove the gloss. Some guys dull the board on purpose. Don’t use the Scotchbrite on your board—maple or rosewood. It might be okay but I never tried it fearing it to be too abrasive. Make sure your hands are clean and dry before playing. Try an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you’re already on stage and can’t wash up again. Never let someone else play your guitar if it’s gig-ready. Their hands may not be as clean as yours. Timmy the Roady used to play my guitars along with the band, backstage or off-stage—not plugged in, of course—after tuning them. Not only does this present the possibility of knocking the guitar back out of tune, but it shortens the clean life of my strings so I’ve asked him to stop. Finally, I’ve had bad luck with private label 10-paks the giant guitar chains sell at a supposed discount. Some discount; they come pre-corroded! I had to polish the strings with 0000 before putting the on the guitar. If you hold an unwound string up to the light and see lots of dark spots—just little dots, really, your strings are already corroded. Stick with name brands.
Mods and Rockers
No, this ain’t about sissy English kids complete with suits, ties and motor scooters vs. the biker-types patterned after Brando in the Wild One, but mods for rockin’ instead. Imagine those West Coast-type chopper guys showing up on motor scooters, trying to look tough—only in England!
Perhaps you guys remember my Boss BD-2 Blues Driver review of a couple of months ago. I’ve received a fair amount of feedback on a mod-kit from Monte Allums (formerly, Superior Sound Designs) in Mississippi. The customer feedback looks like Harmony Central respondents at a Monte Allums fan club rally so I figured I’d look into this. Most of his mod kits are quite inexpensive and, let’s be honest—fun to do. Check him out at www.monteallums.com
Monte makes three (!) kits just for the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver so I jumped at the chance to compare a modified unit to a stock version. Before we begin, I should tell you that I paid full retail for the kit to avoid any psychological predispositions. My day gig is in the home audio world and I’ve seen and heard hundreds of opinions about the performance of products that were enhanced by one’s own needs to validate a purchase; if he bought it, it must be good! Not me, baby. If it doesn’t improve the performance, it’s a waste of time. Mods are common in the world of home and studio HiFi reproduction. There used to be way more mod kits and companies than today as the market for high-end audio is sadly evaporating; apparently, no one wants to listen to music on a fine system—shame. By the way, you’d never believe the crap some of my “colleagues” have come up with. First, there was marking the edge of your CD’s with a green Magic Marker to enhance their sound. Then there was a journalist who insisted that if you put your turntable in a damp tent, made of a large bath towel, the records would sound better. A well-known charlatan sold foil strips, around one by three inches, with a little fringe cut along the bottom, that you pinned to your shirt while listening—ostensibly to improve the sound! Morons actually bought this stuff. One erudite, but possibly insane, journalist claimed that a dime placed on the top of one of your speakers, would improve sound as well. You can’t make this stuff up. So what do we have here? A turntable in a tent or a real improvement? Read on…
Monte Allums makes mod kits for many pedals, In fact, he has somewhere around 35 to 40 kits available with more constantly hatching as he discovers new modifications and new op-amps, etc. This guy’s a lot like me. He gets big-time pleasure from sitting in his music room and nailing great tone. I find I play better if my tone is inspiring; so does Monte. It all started some years ago when he was unsuccessful at re-creating the tone in his head from commercially-available products. Although not a degreed engineer, he does know how to wield a soldering iron, has a sharp ear and had a hobbyist’s familiarity with electronics. First, he merely subbed out the stock cheap parts for better ones. This is the easiest and cheapest approach but has limited potential. Yet, he did hear a difference and that difference inspired him to take it further. Obviously, you may assume, from his extensive catalog of kits, that he’s taken the concept pretty damn far. He’s either nuts or terribly dedicated. Here he is, three years later, offering kits from $19.99 to $27.99. How he makes any money is a mystery to me. Maybe he is nuts.
If you need a kit installed, Chad Matthews of CMATMODS in Tennessee will do it for you for a measly $35.00! Chad and Monte kind of work together. While not commercially connected, or even in the same city, Chad will either install the kit you’ve already purchased or you have the option of buying a Monte Allums kit directly from CMATMODS who will then do the installation. Completely installed kits run from $45.00 to $55.00 so he’s as crazy as Monte. It’s unlikely either fellow is getting rich from this enterprise. That said, dealing with these guys is like going to see a good lawyer when you’re in trouble; you always feel better afterward. Monte is a straight forward guy who’s dedicated himself to better tone for us all. This stuff takes time to develop. Chad, likewise, is a serious tone freak and a great craftsman.
You might remember that I sent him a botched kit and he fixed it up like new despite Timmy the Roady nearly destroying the circuit board with a soldering gun (see below). I first met Timmy at a jam session. He had some sort of pointy purple guitar plugged into a dinky battery-powered Crate amplifier and was warming up furiously in a back room. Playing furiously up and down the neck, he sure looked serious but whenever he stopped, he was always smiling. Seemed like a nice fellow to me. He had some issues with his playing so I offered a few lessons which he eagerly accepted. Eventually, I asked him what he did for a living. He said he assembled pedals for Chicago Iron! If life were a cartoon, a light bulb would’ve instantly appeared above my head. “Hey, Timmy, how ‘bout installing my mod kit? I’ll give you my wah wah pedal if you do it”, sez me. Since he had no tools of his own, it was off to Radio Shack, where I bought him a low-wattage soldering pencil, some solder, a roll of de-soldering braid and even a digital multi-meter. When I finally got my pedal back, it could only produce hum and not in tune with any song extant. I sent it off to Chad hoping he could fix it. He fixed it perfectly with the admonition that whoever destroyed this pedal must never again pick up a soldering iron. It seems, Timmy, in addition to having difficulty with shaking hands, felt the little soldering pencil to be some sort of toy and he, instead, used a full-sized gun and burned up the circuit board and a few ancillary components as well. The fact that Chad could repair it speaks volumes!
It seems CMATMODS is primarily a pedal manufacturer. Trained in electronics, his schooling could not possibly prepare him for the pedal business. He started modifying existing pedals some 14 years ago as a result of dissatisfaction with commercially-available products—just like Monte. We’ll revisit Chad’s company and offerings in a future column. Before I return to the actual test, I should mention his workmanship. In a word, it’s outstanding. Visit his site at www.CMATMODS.com. He’s delightful to deal with just like Monte. You’ll love these guys.
What’s the point of modifying anything if the results aren’t worth the time, money and effort? In many instances, if the modifications are strongly based on the original deign, the results may be subtle. A complete redesign would hardly be considered a mod. Do not expect overwhelming differences. What would be the point of completely changing a Fuzz Face to make it sound like an RC Booster? If you like the Fuzz Face enough to attempt to improve it, you wouldn’t want to lose the original’s character. Thus begins our comparison of the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver and the modified version.
At the outset, I needed to determine what amplifier to use. If you remember from our Blues Driver review, I loved the pedal but it did not sound the same in different amplifiers. I wanted to give the comparison a fair, um, hearing so I used my Fender Blues Deville. I set up an instant comparison rig using two A/B/Y boxes so the pedals would be completely isolated from each other to prevent loading anomalies from coloring the results. I used a DiMarzio Fat Strat-equipped Strat-style guitar, the modified Epiphone Emperor I wrote about a few months back, replete with P-90’s, my Gibson 60’s semi-solid and my new Telecaster which sounds different from the Strat. This is a pretty broad spectrum of pickup styles but the results were pretty consistent throughout the tests. It should be mentioned that I tried varying levels of level, gain, and tone on both BD-2’s. On stage, I use no gain with humbuckers and differing amounts of gain with single-coils. All the above instruments use different settings for optimal tone when performing but my tastes are different than yours so I tried every combination I could think of. The results were still surprisingly consistent. The first thing I did was to set the gain at zero and the level control was then adjusted to insure identical output from both pedals. My test rig allows for instantaneous switching so that was pretty easy. The modified pedal had more output if the settings were identical. I had to run the level control about 20% higher on the stock pedal to get identical volume. The tone controls were also different but I didn’t necessarily prefer one over the other in that regard. The stock pedal seemed to have a bit less drive while allowing slightly more detail due to the lower drive. The modded pedal had a more homogenous presentation and was slightly smoother.
Frankly, I’d hoped for a large difference so my job would be easier. The difference was subtle and I could easily live with either pedal. That said, here are a few quoted testimonials Monte Allum’s website:
“I used the BD-2 with the H2O mod I snagged on line last night for the first time and it KILLS!!”
Richard Rutledge, Birmingham, AL
“Monte, thank you so so much for your help! I really love your blues driver mod. It's hands down the very best I have ever heard and I played a lot of em. I will be telling all my friends about your website. Worship at full volume!”
Richard Bonnell, Loveland, CO
“Monte, I recently picked up your Blues Driver H2O pedal, and it is phenomenal. The transparency of the pedal is amazing, and it has actually created a problem for me. I'm leaving the H2O on all the time and adjusting it from clean to a little gain with my guitar volume. I've been using a Kelley SD-1 after it to kick in a little more gain, but the problem is the lack of clarity with that pedal really messes up the tone I've got with the H2O.”
Whoa—pretty intense stuff. While I have no way to determine if these guys ever compared the stock to modified versions, you can see these folks truly dug this kit. Now this is very important: Monte has multiple kits for the BD2. I used the H2O but there’s a Plus version which garners even greater praise. Chad told me that if I’d used different amplifiers, I’d have different results. As you all know, the pedal will combine with the amp’s input stage and different architectures can yield different results. While I did mention that the original unmodified Blues Driver sounded great with some amps and lousy with others, it didn’t occur to me that the compatibility issue could mitigate my findings in a comparison test. I’m going to do a follow-up and bring in some respected musicians and producers to see what they think. In the meantime, check out the responses on Monte’s site and on Harmony Central. Some people think I’m crazy (deaf from too many years of rockin’, perhaps?) for not hearing a bigger difference. I owe it to you and Monte to investigate further. Monte markets these because in his music room, there are, well, marketable differences. I suggest you discuss your needs with Monte. He’s a delight to deal with and although the kits are actually pretty easy to install, unless your hands shake like Timmy the Roady’s and you look at soldering pencils with a suspicious eye, you can always have Chad pop one in for a few dollars. So, my fellow pickers, here’s my summary: 1) Slightly smoother; 2) Different tone control response; more gain; a tiny bit less shrill but the stock pedal still stands up quite well. I can’t wait to try the “Plus” mod to see if the changes are less subtle. Finally, Monte provides a far brighter LED indicator in bright white instead of red. It’s incredibly bright; one could easily use it as a flashlight. Unfortunately, it’s so intense, it dazzles my eyes so I can no longer make out the settings of the knobs! It is, however, your choice. You may customize the intensity (and color) to suit your preference. Ask Monte. I will be testing pedals from Chad soon. This should be interesting. Also, with so many kits available from Monte, it would be interesting to see how some of these modifications affect pedals that are far less subtle than the BD-2 to begin with. Think about the possibilities.
The Further Adventures of Timmy the Roady
Last month, I promised you more on Timmy. This next story is true—funny, but true! As you know, if you read my speaker reviews, I build guitar speaker cabinets. I build them for two reasons: 1) I can no longer carry heavy cabinets to the gig so I design and build lightweight cabs that still work quite well and, 2) I needed at least two identical cabs for speaker comparisons. I like my cabs to look cool as well. One is covered in real tweed and two are covered in purple Tolex (actually cheaper than black and more fun, too). I decided to try finishing a new one in high-gloss paint. Timmy was enthusiastic about helping so we cleared a spot in my workshop and headed over to the building center for supplies. We finished the basic construction but the bare wood needed, in addition to sealing and priming, a good dollop of wood filler compatible with our primer. There were nicks and chips along the edges (I use plywood) and there were also depressions where the screws were driven below the surface of the wood (so they wouldn’t show). I had to run over to The Guitar Works to pick up a surprise for Timmy. I had a guitar made for him overseas (as in China) and it needed some work. He’d been eagerly awaiting its return as it really is a beautiful instrument. I left him by himself at my place to fill and sand the various gauges and cavities of the new cabinet. Upon my return, I hurried downstairs to show Timmy his now-nearly-perfect-guitar. He was thrilled to say the least. After calming down a bit, he asked if I’d seen the cabinet. It was now, according to Timmy, ready for final sanding and paint. I went to the work table and couldn’t believe my eyes. He filled all the nooks and crannies with aquarium sealer. Pure silicone, it cannot be sanded or painted. I was incredulous. “Why did you use silicone, Timmy?” He became very agitated. “Well, it won’t leak”, came his trembly reply. “Leak what? Are we filling it with water? What were you thinking?” “Well, it won’t leak air—that’s for sure” said Timmy in his own defense. “Well, Tim, it’s an open-back cab! Who cares if it leaks a little air?” I snarled back. At this point, Timmy was sweating profusely and his eyes were becoming bloodshot. Did I see a bit of wetness in those eyes? I figured I’d better lighten up. He tried hard to do the right thing but I was not thrilled at the prospect of building another cabinet or covering this one in more purple Tolex. “Well, maybe it can be sanded and painted. Did you check the instructions?” I asked, this time more gently. “Uh, yeah, I did”, said Tim. “I think maybe it can be sanded and painted”, added Tim with a glimmer of hope. I suggested he get the tube of sealant and carefully read the instructions to me as I can’t read small print without glasses. He ran for the now-empty tube, brought it back (completely covered in messy sealant) and read, “Instrucciones. Las superficies deben estar limpias…” Timmy! That’s Spanish”. His eyes grew wide and he proclaimed, “It is? No wonder I screwed up”. Timmy does not speak Spanish. Some time later, we managed to remove all the silicone by using a razor and a special solvent and primed the cabinet with some $35.00/gallon trick primer that would stick to the space shuttle upon re-entry or to a submarine at the bottom of the ocean. Tim started to paint the cabinet and I went to my home office to prepare my column. After about a half hour, here comes Timmy, very concerned and obviously distraught after what he’d already been through. “There’s a spot on the cabinet and I can’t get rid of it”, cried Timmy. “Did you prime it?”, I asked. He said he not only primed it but put on six (!) coats of paint. “You put on six coats?”, I asked. Yes, and the spot is still there.” said Timmy. I couldn’t understand how a spot could remain visible after six coats of paint and followed Tim into the workshop. “There!” he exclaimed. “There’s the spot”. “Tim!”, I shouted. “That’s your shadow!” He stopped in his tracks and looked carefully at the cabinet. As he moved from side-to-side, the spot moved with him. We had a good laugh as I told him of a Three Stooges episode where something similar took place. Eventually, a Jensen Jet found its way into the cabinet with pretty spectacular results but that’s a story for next time. We’ll also look at a new high-end bass guitar from Sandberg. Until then, stay in tune and keep away from Timmy the Roady.