Tag: Pro advice

How—and Why—You Should Try Recording Backward Guitar Parts

How—and Why—You Should Try Recording Backward Guitar Parts

Hello and welcome to another Dojo! Since this issue is dedicated to all things acoustic, I thought I’d share a fun technique that I call “harmonic clouds.” It involves learning a section of your song backwards, recording it, reversing the new recording, and placing it back in the appropriate spot (or not!). I usually do this with acoustic guitars, but it can be applied with equal aplomb to electrics and can supercharge your creativity. Tighten up! The Dojo is now open.

We are all familiar with the sound of reverse delay. On the surface, you might be thinking, “I can do this already.” But you’d be missing out. The “harmonic clouds” technique offers many more possibilities and much more control than recording a guitar part with a reverse delay effect. In short, this technique is inspired more by the process and sounds of double tracking than using delays.

This initial track is the closest thing to a simple reverse delay but it’s not—because it is an entirely different performance, and all those subtle timing and timbral differences are there in all their glory.

By the mid-’60s, it was standard practice for the Beatles to sing all their lead vocals (and some background vocals) twice to thicken up their voices. The resulting deviations from each individual track heard together offered a slight, natural, chorusing effect as well as charming variations in timing of words, dynamics, and timbre. The net result was that the vocals stood out more on the final recordings.

However, it was time consuming. John Lennon, in particular, was always asking for a way to have the sound of “double tracking” without actually having to track the vocal twice. EMI’s brilliant studio engineer Ken Townsend devised an ingenious way of splitting the signal from just after the recording head on a Studer J37 tape machine (at 15 ips) and routing it through both recording and playback heads of the EMI BTR2 tape machine (at 30 ips), the sound from the BTR2 would then be heard at almost the same time as the sound from the Studer’s playback head [Fig. 1] With a little more help from a Levell oscillator, Townsend could varispeed the BTR2 machine with greater control (see my March 2022 article about varispeed). Thus, ADT (artificial double tracking) was born, and, FYI, Waves makes the Reel ADT plug-in ($29 street) as part of their Abbey Road Collection. But I’m going to take you a bit further than that, because we’re going to create new tracks that will increasingly differ from the original! Plus, you can always apply ADT to the new tracks later.

Let’s get started. Here are the three basic steps:

  1. Take the chords from a particular section of your song (perhaps the chorus or the bridge) and learn the progression backwards, including the rhythms as well. For this example, I was working on the bridge section of a song I wrote on my album that will be released this fall called Jacob’s Well. The way I do this is by writing a chart, then reversing the order and playing it until it feels natural.
  2. Create a new track and then record the “new” rhythm guitar part you just learned by muting all the other tracks and playing along with the click track.
  3. Reverse the track you just recorded and listen to it. Before you unmute all the other tracks and listen to how it sounds, you may have to align it a bit depending on when you stopped recording. Feel free to experiment and play around with aligning the new track in different places rhythmically and listen to how it changes the section. This initial track is the closest thing to a simple reverse delay but it’s not—because it is an entirely different performance, and all those subtle timing and timbral differences are there in all their glory.

Now we’re ready to have some real fun. Create some new tracks and repeat steps one though three, but each time play the same reversed passage in different parts of the guitar (i.e., you can change the tuning, use a capo, use only power chords, add effects, etc). As the versions pile in and you get used to the process, I think you’ll be really surprised by the results. Who knows, you might even start trying this with all kinds of instruments! Just remember to always serve the song and stay true to the emotional content you want to use these tracks to achieve. Most often for me, less is more.

Until next month, blessings, and keep sharing your gifts with the world. Namaste.

This 50-Piece Ensemble Is a Model for Modern Music Making

This 50-Piece Ensemble Is a Model for Modern Music Making

The first time I experienced an orchestra I was 7. A year earlier, a roving teacher visited my class carrying a bag filled with plastic recorders. She gave us a simple challenge: “I’ll be back in a week to see how many of you can play this song without squeaking!” As promised, she returned one week later, and miraculously I made the cut. My reward was to be enrolled at the Newham Academy of Music in London. A week later, another teacher handed me a tiny violin and said, “If you can play the song I just taught you by next week without squeaking, you can stay.” I noticed a trend—squeaking on any instrument was bad. A year later, I was on stage at the Royal Albert Hall with about 50 other kids. Our orchestra was called Da Capo, which means “from the beginning.”

Over the next four decades as a composer, I continued to have close encounters with orchestras: London Symphony Orchestra at 19, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at 40, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra at 45. It became apparent to me, even at 19, how exceedingly difficult it was for people who looked like me to become involved in the orchestral world—a world created around an enduring European tradition which rarely took us into account. This was true of all the various institutions, and even nations, that populated the long road travelled towards becoming an orchestral musician or composer. And to a large extent, this is still true today.

Due to my early experiences in Da Capo, or my fascination with the idea that 50 to 80 people could all work together in sync to create music, I had always dreamt of an orchestra that could be representative of the actual residents—and sounds—of the city where it resided.

Philadelphia’s Public Orchestra offers an alternative to traditional classical ensembles, with room for all instruments and backgrounds.

The Public Orchestra, one module of Rehearsing Philadelphia, an expansive musical project/meta score created by American artist and composer Ari Benjamin Meyers and funded and produced by a quorum of local institutions, had that same goal in mind. Thus, when they offered me the musical director gig it was an easy yes! See more about this massive project and Ari’s manifesto for it here.

The Public Orchestra of Philly is a complete reimagining of what an orchestra could, or should, be. It began with Ari’s question, “How can we be together?” We considered the vast gamut of musical communities within Philadelphia—jazz, gospel, soul, hip-hop, classical, folk, Indian, Brazilian, Mexican, Cuban, Philipino, Klezmer, Arabic, Korean, West African, and many others—and pondered how these could all be represented and coexist within a 50-piece ensemble. Just two of the orchestra’s members are Tchin, who plays the Native American nose flute, and Matthew Law, who plays the turntables. See our stage plot below for a complete listing of the instruments chosen.

Notation is a useful tool, especially within orchestras, which are notoriously expensive to rehearse. But when considering the musical traditions that exist outside the realm of Western notation—most—it can become a barrier. Not requiring our participants to read music allowed many more musical communities to be included. Repertoire was another area we considered. We knew that the orchestra should perform new works written specifically for it, which would require commissions.

We asked, “What is a composer?” The traditional conventions governing orchestral composition—the typical “top down” hierarchy involving a conductor and score, sections and parts, first and second chairs, and even the idea of pre-composed music—meant that the pool of people who could compose for orchestras was quite limited. However, our composer pool grew exponentially once we reconsidered those. We commissioned five wildly different composers: Ann Carlson (choreographer), Ursula Rucker (performance poet), Xenia Rubinos (Latinx electronic music artist), Ari Benjamin Meyers (the project’s architect), and Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra (97-year-old free jazz luminary).

Butch Morris, Anthony Braxton, and others explored an entire system of conducting with the goal of spontaneous composition in mind. Butch’s system, with its extensive array of gestures, formed the basis of how I chose to interact with the orchestra as its musical director/conductor. With this approach, the orchestra and I were able to create complex improvisations that sound pre-composed, but which actually required zero reading. We asked our composers to create works which could be taught by ear and played from memory. Using these two methods, we were all able to create a dynamic 90-minute show representing Philadelphia.

The result? The three Public Orchestra performances at Cherry Street Pier included some of Philadelphia’s most diverse and genuinely engaged audiences. The compositions performed spanned hip-hop and avant dance, serialism and free jazz, vocal chants and soaring cadenzas, and many other unique mixes unexpected at an orchestra performance. Much like the orchestra itself, these shows didn’t speak to any one traditional or culture. They were soul stirring events, which brought people from all walks of life to experience each other, play and create great art together.

To be continued!

How Many Amps Do You Use?

How Many Amps Do You Use?

Kevin Morby joins the discussion of what we’re plugging our guitars into these days. Plus, musical obsessions!

Q: Do you own or use more than one amp—why or why not?

Kevin Morby — Guest Picker

Kevin Morby

A: I technically own four different amps. Two different Orange 15-watt practice amps that are great for recording and running vocals through in my living room. I also own a Supro and Fender Vibrolux. The Fender Vibrolux is my most used amp, and the Supro is good if I ever want a lot of overdrive.

Kevin Morby’s Current Obsession:

My current musical obsession is MJ Lenderman, a young artist from Asheville, North Carolina, who is making incredible music. If I didn’t know his backstory, I would maybe think I was listening to a lost demo from the early ’90s Drag City submissions bin. But it’s not from then, it’s from now, and it’s amazing. I listened to it while mowing the lawn recently and it was perfect lawn-mowing music. He is also incredible at guitar. Go listen!

Joseph Müs Contento — Reader of the Month

A: Yep, and I use them both at the same time. Got a Vox Night Train combo set clean and a Marshall Class 5 set dirty, and the resulting sound is a sparkly, gritty mix. Chimey and articulate, while warm and meaty. Best of both worlds.

Eventually I want a Fender ’65 Princeton Reissue and a Marshall Silver Jubilee 20-watt combo to really accentuate those qualities. I also use stereo delay and ping-pong the signal between the two amps. The further I physically keep the amps away from each other, the more dramatic the effect. It’s trippy and atmospheric AF, fills out the space between notes, and I love it.

Joseph Müs Contento Current Obsession:

Continuing to build the coolest guitars I can. I’ve settled into my job at Gibson Custom and have slowly built up a woodshop of my very own. The inaugural build that I just started this spring is my entry to this year’s Great Guitar Build-Off. I’m excited to dig my teeth into my new tools and techniques and to see how far I’ve come as a luthier in the past two years!

Shawn Hammond — Chief Content Officer

A: Yes! I love the variety of tones and textures imparted by different types of power tubes—and that you can further tweak responsiveness with preamp-tube swaps.

My ’76 Fender Vibrolux Reverb (6L6 tubes) is a killer pedal platform and pairing it with a Fender Rumble 200 bass amp adds massive oomph. An old Fender Vibro Champ (6V6) is great for middle-of-the-night playing that still sounds nice (I hate headphones).

A Sound City SC30 (KT66s) yields a huge array of British tones with killer reverb, a Goodsell Valpreux 21 (6973s) is great for soulful, old-school tones at a reasonable volume, while a Jaguar HC50 (EL34s) combo has big, brawny sounds, thanks to its Hiwatt-esque circuit and oversized cab.

Shawn Hammond’s Current Obsession: 

Current obsession: Fontaines D.C.’s new album, Skinty Fia.

Ted Drozdowski — Senior Editor

A: I’ve curated my amps for a wide variety of tones, and I love having Marshall, Fender, Carr, Supro, Orange, and Quilter sounds at ready for the stage—where I run in stereo—and studio.

After many years, I’ve found a voice as a guitarist that’s my own, and blending a variety of amps, guitars, and effects is part of it.

Ted Drozdowski’s Current Obsession:

Germanium fuzz and octave fuzz pedals. Over the past year I’ve gone deep into fuzzworld and acquired a pile of stomps, including three custom builds (my one-off Burns Buzzaround clone with four germanium chips is satanically heavenly), and they’ve expanded my sonic vocabulary even more. I want to keep it expanding, like the universe.

Guitar Prices: An Inflation Study

Guitar Prices: An Inflation Study

After two-and-a-half years of Covid-created mayhem, who doesn’t want to celebrate? And what better way to celebrate survival and better times to come than with a new rig? The bucket list of guitars you’ve wanted for months or even years is long, but this is no time to start at the bottom. Whether it’s a guitar, that otherworldly octave mandolin, or an amp or boutique pedal, it’s time for a reward that only you can deliver. The top item on your list is finally available, you’re ready to buy, but suddenly you notice the price: What the …? Are they kidding? You check other sources but it’s not a misprint, and certainly not a joke. The price of your reward to yourself for sticking it out and staying safe has gone up, and not by just a few bucks. You’ve been eyeing this gear for quite a while and the price hadn’t changed much­—until now. What’s going on?

Welcome to inflation, the killjoy that punishes you for not having purchased something months earlier, perhaps before you could afford it. In retrospect, a few months of additional interest on your credit card would have been a bargain compared to the price increase you’re looking at now. Unless you’ve been living in a cave in the wilderness, you’ve heard about inflation, of course, and noticed it at the grocery store, and you’ve certainly felt it if you’re putting gas in your car. But when inflation hits your music budget, it feels personal, more insulting, and unfair.

The shock a price hike delivers depends more upon your age than you might think. For geezers like this writer, the recent price increases of guitars don’t seem that horrible. But those who started buying guitar gear less than 30 years ago usually began their shopping in a very different pricing landscape, so some time-machine data crunching might help ease the pain. Rather than wade into the Wall Street weeds of charts and graphs tracking inflation over the last several decades, we’ll use the cost of Martin’s venerable D-28 acoustic, partly because it’s so well-known but also because the model was essentially unchanged for so many years.

When inflation hits your music budget, it feels personal, more insulting, and unfair.

C. F. Martin had been forced to raise prices every year in the late ’60s, as labor costs in the U.S. were rising steadily. But inflation hit especially hard in the early ’70s. The cost of building an acoustic guitar like the D-28 was almost all labor—the prices Martin paid for Sitka spruce, East Indian rosewood, mahogany, plus a set of Grover Rotomatics and a case were a small percentage of what you were paying for when you bought a polished and playable dreadnought. Martin’s list price of a D-28 first crossed the $500 line in July 1972, when it went from $495 to $570. The next price increase came only nine months later and was even more painful, going up to $660. Then came two more price increases, and by September 1974 the price had jumped to $770. Those numbers represent a price increase of more than 50 percent between early 1972 and the fall of 1974. No wonder a popular parody of Janis Joplin’s humorous “Mercedes Benz” began:

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a D-Twenty-Eight
My friends all have Martins, how long must I wait?
The prices keep rising, I fear I’m too late,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a D-Twenty-Eight

Yet 20 years later, inflation in North America had long since cooled. Price increases throughout the ’70s and ’80s had taken their toll, and Martin’s D-28 crossed the $2,000 line in 1993 (to $2,060), but then leveled out. Ten years later, the MSRP of a D-28 was still less than $2,500 ($2,469 in 2004). That’s an increase of 20 percent over more than a decade. Needless to say, the young guitar-picker who’d been saving for a D-28 in the late ’90s, when the price was unchanged for five years and then went up only $69, didn’t feel punished for saving. But during the high-flying inflation of the early 1970s, even folk-rockers and the bluegrass faithful, at least when shopping for a new D-28, were singing the blues.

The takeaway from all this? Financial forecasts suggest that inflation isn’t going to back off in the near future. Buying that dream rig now rather than later is probably a good idea, especially if you put it to good use!

Last Call: The Fawn & the Bear

Last Call: The Fawn & the Bear

Playing acoustic guitar is an entirely different experience than playing electric. For that matter, playing an acoustic that’s plugged in is entirely different from playing an acoustic acoustically. Try your normal electric go-to stuff on an acoustic and you’ll probably be disappointed with the results. Plug an acoustic with a pickup straight into a DI or board, and it’s not going to respond or sound like an acoustic in your living room.

As a guitar nerd, I disliked that whole MTV Unplugged series. Mostly it was rockers just strumming away, kumbaya-style, on a harsh-sounding, plugged-in acoustic where you hear the pickup rather than the guitar body. Unless the song was either acoustically friendly or the artist came up with a completely different interpretation of the song, like Clapton did with “Layla,” most acoustic covers of electric songs undermine the guitar part.

Van Halen – You Really Got Me (Acoustic)

In 1978, Eddie Van Halen put his swagger, groove, and ferocious riffs on “You Really Got Me,” and turned a weird Kinks’ tune into a game-changing rock anthem. But watch their 2012 acoustic version: It sounds like a solid but unremarkable player sitting around a campfire. Eddie was a brilliant acoustic player, as “Spanish Fly” from Van Halen’s second album demonstrates, but that was Eddie doing a specific acoustic composition.

Acoustic guitar is a different animal than electric. Ergo, one of the greatest guitarists ever sounds like a mere mortal when trying to make an instrument do what it can’t do. In fact, a basic electric guitar in 1978 wasn’t capable of what Van Halen wanted it to do, so he built his own. But the point of Unplugged was to showcase the song more than the riff.

Most of my session work is on acoustic. I love playing acoustic sessions: low pressure. With electric sessions, you must deal with buzzy amps and scratchy pots that you only hear under the microscope of recording. Take away pedals, amps, pickups, or cables, and nothing goes wrong. There’s rarely equipment failure when you’re not plugged in. But that’s not the only benefit.

“It’s like putting something delicate and sweet, such as a tiny fawn covered in white spots, next to a grizzly bear on its hind legs.”

With electric sessions, there’s pressure to wow the audience with riffs and fresh signature parts. With acoustic, it’s always serve-the-song and rarely look-at-me. Usually you’re laying down a simple, sturdy foundation, supporting the vocals and building the bed for the electric to shred. If done well, it brings out the best in the song and the lead instruments. Acoustic sessions are probably a bit like being a pilot: smooth/simple/routine procedural bits with the occasional terrifying part where you must land a plane with a wing on fire (or play a fast bluegrass solo).

The juxtaposition of an acoustic with an electric is a tried-and-true production approach because those textures work perfectly together. Some of the most epic hard-rocking songs rock all the harder because they start with acoustic. Por ejemplo: Heart’s “Crazy on You,” Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.”

It’s like putting something delicate and sweet, such as a tiny fawn covered in white spots, next to a grizzly bear on its hind legs. The bear and the electric guitar seem even more powerful and scary by comparison.

That said, an acoustic guitar in the right hands can sound as big and awe-inspiring as a great three-piece band in full flight. Players such as Mike Dawes, Andy McKee, and Marcin Patrzalek cover bass and lead with 6-strings, then add their percussive element by beating on the guitar. They use internal mics and reverb to get a huge drum sound that you can’t pull off on a Tele or Les Paul.

Joe Bonamassa Official – “Woke Up Dreaming” – Live From Royal Albert Hall

On the other hand, masters of bluegrass flatpicking, like Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, and Tony Rice, play single-note melodies that, even when unaccompanied, sound complete. For an amazing example of a hybrid approach, check out Joe Bonamassa’s “Woke Up Dreaming.” At times, it’s classical fingerpicking. Then it’s Al Di Meola-eque blazing, then a hybrid thing that really sounds like two guitar players at once. I’ve listened to that track probably 20 times and I still don’t know how he does it.

Then there’s Tommy Emmanuel, who has everything in his bag. He does the percussive guitar-as-a-drum thing and combines it with Travis thumbpicking and break-neck flatpicking. And Jerry Reed played some of the most complex, funky guitar music ever recorded on his gut-string.

Guitar shredding predates electricity, so it all started on acoustic. Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Skip James, Son House, and the Devil’s own, Robert Johnson (armed with a high-action wooden box with strings bought from a Sears catalog), reimagined what the instrument could do. It’s a long, winding journey, but the road to rock ’n’ roll and blues was paved with acoustic guitars.

Reader Guitar of the Month: A Tribute to Two Mentors

Reader Guitar of the Month: A Tribute to Two Mentors

A love for Ry Cooder, Dave Bernstein, and good Tex-Mex were combined into a sentimental 6-string.

Here is my Tres Hombres Coodercaster. Look, as much as I claim to be a “serious musician,” a songwriter, and a player who is trying to develop his own original voice, I freely admit I’m a hopeless, pathetic wannabe and a fanboy of Ry Cooder. I was first introduced to Ry via his Borderline album: a masterpiece that blew my ever-loving mind in the way it combined many of my favorite genres in one cohesive, unique sound. Ry became my distant mentor, teaching me about “less is more,” the relationship between fingers and strings, the magic of open-string voicings, and the importance of listening and creating space.

Recently, I decided to refurbish my “D” Strat and go full Cooder. My Strat was already a solid working tool dedicated to slide guitar. It sounded and looked close to Ry’s main guitar but just needed a few iconic pieces. I started with a sunburst Fender Robert Cray model for the body: a great hardtail with a vintage-style bridge. I heard that Ry had a very wide neck on his Strat to help with fingerpicking, so I went with a custom 1-3/4″ nut width, ’59 roundback neck by Warmoth that’s about as wide as an acoustic guitar neck. Like Ry, I put a P-90 in the bridge position and was really happy with what I heard when I played.

But, you know, once you start moddin’, you just can’t stop. I knew I would need to make the “Supro move.” When I had the means, I began to build a guitar that would truly serve as a platform to emulate the sounds that I’d fallen in love with. I finally got a Lollar Supro in the bridge and a vintage Teisco Gold Foil towards the neck. The Teisco was not the Teisco as you can see from the screws. But it sounds fantastic, so, I’m okay with it. I kept it simple with one master tone and a Tele volume knob for faux pedal-steel tricks.

With the pickguard, I decided to pay tribute to another mentor: Bay Area guitarist Dave Bernstein, who passed away in 2008 after a heroic struggle with cancer. Dave was one of the strongest personalities I’ve ever met. To many, he was a caustic, bitter, rude bastard. For those who knew him, he was the sweetest, funniest, most patient, most generous friend you could have. Dave had two rare gifts: an extraordinary love and appreciation for music and being totally blunt. He was a respected blues guitarist, backing harmonica artist Mark Hummel for years. Dave had an enormous impact on my life, and I miss him a lot.

Once, Dave and I were having a passionate discussion about Mexican food and where we would go that night to have some. He said, “Let me show you something.” He pulled out his LP copy of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres and opened it up to reveal a giant image of a gorgeous Tex-Mex spread. That’s the thing about LPs that still matters—the folded image! As I was savoring that spread, Dave, as usual, remarked, “Now that is the shit.” He was right of course … about so many things. In a strange way, that image has always represented my memory of Dave. So, I had Carmedon Guitar in Jacksonville, Florida, print it onto my pickguard. I love the way it plays, and it sure looks terrific. Thanks, Ry. Thanks, Dave.

Repetition Is Our Friend

Repetition Is Our Friend

It seems the more passionate you are about an artistic pursuit, the more pressure there is to be not just physically proficient at it, but—especially if you create your own material—to come up with something “new.” I suppose this mindset must go back centuries, if not millennia. That said, the ongoing internet/social-media experiment—still a tiny-ass blip on humanity’s psychosocial evolutionary timeline—has also conditioned us to put those tendencies into blazing overdrive over the course of a single generation.

I’m not here to bemoan our tech-driven, mental-health clusterfuck, though. Instead, I want to remind you that the pressure to “innovate” is completely in our own heads. To be a “serious” guitarist, you do not need to come up with some brilliant new fingering pattern or rhythm. You do not need to invent fancy-ass chords. You do not need to create mind-numbing numerological key-modulation formulas or devise a new post-pseudo-palindrome composition format. If you consistently feel compelled to do the aforementioned when you sit down to write music, ask yourself—am I doing this to be “a good guitarist”? Chances are, a lot of the time it’s insecurity or the need to impress (aka “insecurity”) that’s driving it. My mission here today is to tell you that repetition is our friend.

So go ahead—hit that note or that chord again. And again and again and again … See how cool it feels when you do it with conviction?

More specifically, I contend that a single, insistently repetitive and irresistibly grooving quarter-, eighth-, or 16th-note bass line, done right, pretty much always brings a smile, gets asses moving, or otherwise circulates the blood of those within earshot in ways that have to be good for us. (And, of course, the insistent line doesn’t actually have to be played on a bass.)

There are so many examples of this from the last hundred years of music, you’d think it doesn’t bear, er, repeating. We could all name tunes from across the stylistic spectrum that immediately touch something within us based solely on their hypnotic rhythm. For me, a killer recent example is the opening track off Irish quintet Fontaines D.C.’s new album, Skinty Fia.

With “In ár gCroíthe go deo” (“In our hearts forever”), bassist Conor Deegan III’s undeviating eighth-notes are the restless skeleton around which haunting church-choir harmonies, guitarist Carlos O’Connell’s eerily cycling Mustang noises, Grian Chatten’s thick Dublin-accented pronouncements, and co-guitarist Conor Curley’s alternately chiming and stuttering Jaguar manipulations are able to flesh out the melancholy tale and send it to its beautifully disconcerting climax. Without them, the whole thing would be a wallowing, amorphous mass.

Fontaines D.C. – In ár gCroíthe go deo (Official Lyric Video)

But the power of repetition isn’t confined to bass. Fontaines frontman Chatten uses the technique to mesmerizing, tension-building effect on vocals, as well. So go ahead—hit that note or that chord again. And again and again and again. Repeat that phrase over and over a few times. See how cool it feels when you do it with conviction? The power of repetition is why so much modern music follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula (admittedly, a bit too much for my taste).

Of course, regardless of instrument, mere repetition doesn’t work magic on its own. The core bass work on “In ár gCroíthe go deo” would be just another rock-solid eighth-note line without the rest of the band’s careful additions, all bound together by a vision and attentive listening. But—at least for me—it’s valuable to periodically get slapped awake to the power of lines like this. I doubt I’m the only one who sometimes just can’t see the “forest” (the emotion or mood or message I want to convey) for the endless possible varieties of chords, progressions, scales, tempos, time signatures, etc. that are the “trees.”

How to Change Pickup Wires (& Why)

How to Change Pickup Wires (& Why)

Hello and welcome back to Mod Garage. After numerous requests, this month we’ll have a closer look at changing wires on a single-coil pickup. As our guinea pig for this, I chose a standard Stratocaster single-coil, but it’s basically the same on all single-coil pickups and easy to transfer. It’s not complicated but it is a delicate task to not destroy your pickup during this process, and there are some things you should keep in mind.

Why would you change wires on a pickup? Here’s a list of reasons I mostly hear in the shop when someone brings in a pickup for this operation:

1. A wire is broken and needs to be replaced.

This can happen if the wire was bent too much, or it was damaged with a soldering iron, a screw split it, etc.

2. A used pickup was bought on eBay or a similar marketplace and the wires are too short for your wiring.

Maybe one of the pre-owners snipped it out of the circuit at some point, rather than desoldering it to save the full wire length. The quick-and-dirty solution in such a case will be to extend the wire by soldering another piece of wire to it. For the “Trekkies” of us, that’s the way James T. Kirk and Scotty would fix it. Jean-Luc Picard and Geordi La Forge would solder a new wire with the correct length to the pickup to replace the old one. Make it so!

3. Changing the wires as a quality update.

Often cheap pickups have thin and shoddy plastic-coated wires that will likely break soon. It’s always a good investment regarding reliability and longevity to swap them with a good quality wire.

4. Changing the wires for tonal and/or aesthetic reasons.

Changing the wire material can alter the sound of a pickup, so replacing a cheap plastic-coated wire with a good-quality cloth-covered wire will not only look more vintage but will also result in a slightly warmer tone. Or the other way around for a slightly brighter tone. Or maybe you want to upgrade your pickups with a high-quality Teflon-coated or audiophile HiFi-wire. Perhaps you like to have neon green and pink wires on your pickups, for whatever reason.

5. Changing the wires for a shielded cable to add more shielding to the pickup.

This often goes hand in hand with shielding the complete single-coil pickup and is a logical step in such cases.

6. Changing the wires with NOS wire.

Often vintage pickups are modded with a non-original wire, sometimes as part of a repair. Bringing them back to factory specs is a good investment to keep the value of a vintage pickup alive.

Let’s Begin

So, you see there are some good reasons to change the wires on a pickup. This list is not complete; for sure there are others.

Now, let’s start our project by preparing the pickup for this operation. It’s first and foremost important to protect the windings of your pickup against any damage. It only takes a fraction of a second to hit the winding with the tip of the soldering iron and this is a scenario you do not want.

1. I simply put a standard plastic pickup cover on the pickup to protect the winding. I usually use two small zip ties to fasten the cover, but you can also use two small screws and a hex nut, a rubber band, or a piece of masking tape.

2. Have a look where the hot (usually white, yellow, or red) and the ground (usually black) wires are connected to the pickup and mark one of them. I always mark the hot connection by using a Sharpie, but you can also use a drop of nail polish, a small piece of masking tape … be creative.

3. Measure the DCR (direct current resistance) of your pickup as a reference using your DMM (digital multimeter) and note it. After this is done, push the wires you want to replace upwards through the hole and pull them out, as shown in Photo 1, Photo 2, and Photo 3.

Now put the prepared pickup into a small vise and orient it so that you can look at the soldering terminals the two wires are connected to (Photo 4). Take care to not apply too much pressure with the vise: We only want to fasten the pickup, not break it.

Pre-tin the tip of your soldering iron and heat up the soldering spot while gently pulling on the wire until it comes out (Photo 5). This should not take longer than 2 to 3 seconds. A small chisel-shaped soldering tip is my weapon of choice. Warning: Don’t touch the bobbin of the pickup with the soldering iron—it will melt. Repeat this procedure with the second wire.

Strip the new wire, pre-tin it, pull it through the hole, and bend it so the stripped part will touch the soldering spot (Photo 6). I prefer to guide the wire with my hands, but you can also use tweezers for this. Now pre-tin the tip of your soldering iron and heat up the soldering spot while gently pushing the wire until it is in. This should not take longer than 2 to 3 seconds to perform. Repeat this procedure with the second wire. Cut off the excess wire with a small side cutter.

To check your work, measure the DCR of the pickup and compare it to the value you measured before. Small differences are okay and can be caused by the higher temperature directly after soldering to the pickup, or the new wires can be a different type and might have a different length. If you read zero or infinite, there is something wrong and you should check your soldering spots.

Take off the pickup cover you put on the pickup to protect the winding, and you are done (Photo 7). Congratulations! If you’re doing this regularly, you’ll become better and faster over time, so don’t worry if it takes longer than expected the first time.

Bonus: Staggering Pickup Wires

Staggering pickup wires is a neat trick to not waste any wire, which can be a real issue when using expensive audiophile wires. Pickup manufacturers usually apply the same wire length to all pickups, no matter if it’s a bridge, middle, or neck pickup. And they’re usually way too long, resulting in a good portion of obsolete, snipped off wires. To avoid this, you can add only the length of new wire you really need. Here are the values I use in the shop for a standard Stratocaster:

That’s it for this month. Next, we’ll continue with our guitar relic’ing project, so stay tuned. Until then … keep on modding!

How to Reamp Your Guitar

How to Reamp Your Guitar

[Originally published February 14, 2022]
Welcome to another Dojo! This time I’m going to show you how to reamp your guitar and explore some creative ways you can re-amps other tracks as well (soft synths, vocals, drums, etc.). In my earlier column “Why Guitarists Shouldn’t Diss DIs,” I mentioned the benefits of using a DI for creative recording. If you have a DI box, dust it off! You’ll need it when I show you how to get more out of your DI-recorded guitar and bass tracks by reamping them into your pedals and amps to capture new perspectives and even add some new reverberant spaces. Tighten up your belts, the Dojo is now open.

To begin, you’re going to need a reamp box such as the Radial JCR Studio Reamper ($229 street) and most likely a TRS-to-male XLR cable (like the Hosa HSX-003, $11 street). I like passive re-amp boxes because they don’t require external power and are easy to move around. Some would argue that passive models loose signal strength, which is true, but how many boost/overdrive pedals do we guitarists have? At least one, right? Put one after the reamp box and before your amp. Boom. Problem solved, and you can drive your amp even harder. Otherwise, you’re going to shell out more dinero for active reamp boxes, which isn’t really necessary, and I like the inherent lo-fi nature of this process.

Reamping is a two-part endeavor. The first part involves using a DI box to record the guitar directly into your DAW. If you’re unsure how to do this, I recommend going online and reading my Dojo article mentioned above. It’s very easy and straightforward. The second part involves routing the DI-recorded guitar track out of your DAW and into your reamp pedal. Depending on your interface, you might need the TRS-to-male XLR cable previously mentioned.

Look at Fig. 1 and do the following: Plug the XLR end of the cable from your audio interface’s out into the input of your reamp box. Now use your regular guitar cable and connect the output of your reamp box to the input of your amp. Place a microphone in front of your guitar amp, plug that into your interface, and record-enable that track. When you hit playback, the DI track will play back through your amp, and you will be recording the amp. You’re now re-amping! You can make new recordings each time you change amp settings or mic positions.

For even more craziness, check out Fig. 2. You can add any (and all) pedals (even entire pedalboards) into the signal chain. Get creative. But wait, there’s more!

You can also route any track’s output in your DAW to your reamp box and really start going berserk. Try your lead vocal, the background vocals, keys, and drums (especially drum machines) and listen to how it sounds. Reamping also gives you the ability to manually tweak pedal knobs and make dynamic parts that are really changing as the track plays. Try playing with the times and feedback amount of your delays. Fun!

Finally, depending on how much you are driving your amp, you could keep it clean, move the mic further away from the speaker, and start capturing more of the sound of your room. I like to do this on drum machines. It puts them in a real space. Specifically, your space. No reverb plug-in can get that! As always, I invite you to come by my website to hear and see these concepts in action. Until next time, namaste.

Acoustic Guitars and Fender Amps

Acoustic Guitars and Fender Amps

Have you ever tried to plug your acoustic guitar into a classic-style Fender amp? There are some hurdles to overcome, and this month I’ll provide some advice on how to get past them. But first, some background.

Amps made for electric guitars are carefully designed and matched to the voltages and frequency profiles of signals delivered by electromagnetic pickups. An amp sounds best when it does a good job at amplifying or filtering out certain frequencies. So many of us have stumbled upon challenges when the input signal—say from an acoustic guitar or other instrument—is way different than what the amp expects.

A guitar signal is initially created by moving the strings. The more vibrating metal mass closer to the pickup’s magnet, the more magnetic pull and more current is induced inside the coil wire in the pickups. More windings and stronger magnets induce more current, but also reduce brightness and clarity. The coil-wire thickness, wire material, and coating material and thickness also play a role in signal strength and frequency response. The signal voltage produced by a pickup is low—typically between 0.1 and 1V—and contains frequencies between 80 and 1200 Hz.

On the amp side, there are even more factors that amplify or weaken certain frequencies—so-called frequency filtering. Take a vintage Fender Deluxe Reverb. It is designed with specific tubes, resistors, and caps in the preamp stage to amplify a weak input signal and shape it through EQ, mix in some reverb, and transport the result to the power amp circuit, which does three things. First, it splits and duplicates that result into an inverted signal, then it amplifies the two signals as much as possible, and then feeds them into each side of a power transformer that alters the resulting voltage to a suitable level for a loudspeaker. That’s typically 30 to 50V. The speaker cabinet and loudspeaker itself are the final stage in delivering a filtered and amplified guitar tone.

For acoustic guitars I prefer modern American-style speakers that can handle high power and both a firm bass response and a crisp top end.

If you hook up other instruments, like an acoustic guitar or a harmonica with a microphone, and feed an electric guitar amp their signals, you will get totally different results throughout the circuit. You may not get the tone you expect, or, in the worst case, you might damage the amp. But generally, all passive sources with electromagnetic coil pickups are safe to use. This includes piezo pickups mounted to the bridge of an acoustic guitar and vocal microphones. Since they are not powered by an external source like a 9V battery, they are passive and create a weak signal.

You should be careful using electrically powered sources like an acoustic guitar with a battery-powered preamp and EQ. Also, electric pianos, synthesizers, or Bluetooth speakers with mini-jack outputs are dangerous, too, since they can easily blow the loudspeakers due to a wrong volume or EQ setting. Electric pianos can sound very good through a vintage Fender amp. I’ve seen Fender Rhodes keyboards played through Twin Reverbs, and we’ve all heard organs through Leslie/Vibratone speakers, which can be run by Fender guitar amps.

Acoustic guitars with active pickups can be difficult. With typical default amp settings for electric guitar, the tone is narrow and focused around certain mid frequencies. It lacks fullness, top-end clarity, and overall balance. So, I have some tricks you should try if you’re experimenting with this option. First, set all the EQ knobs to 10. This allows the guitar signal to travel through the preamp section with minimum change of tone. Be very careful with volume and start low—at around 1.5—and increase from there. I find big, powerful Fender amps are best for this, since they have plenty of clean headroom and wide EQ possibilities with a full set of bass, mid, treble, and bright-switch controls. And that makes them less prone to howling feedback.

A big speaker cabinet will enhance the low end, allowing the preamp and power amp to relax more without maxing out clean headroom. Remember that the power and energy lie in the bass. I suggest the silver-panel 40-watt Bandmaster Reverb and 85-watt Showman Reverb as practical amp heads for acoustic purposes. I use my Bandmaster Reverb with a 1×12 extension cabinet loaded with an Eminence Maverick. For acoustic guitars, I prefer modern American-style speakers that can handle high power and both a firm bass response and a crisp top end. Speakers are very important for your tone. The guitar’s pickups are also important, together with a correct setup, so the action permits the optimum proximity of the pickups.

Acoustic pickups don’t have to be expensive. They just need to be balanced and clear. A good guitar amp and some careful adjustments of the controls will do the rest.