Cure Thoughts

Things I’ve been thinking about since seeing the Cure last night.

1. No mics on the amps. I think they have Palmer load boxes. This was fascinating to me.

2. A lot of people like the Cure. I think they are just kind of one of those universal bands now. Still, I don’t understand why. These were not cheap tickets, yet they sold out the bowl three nights. At the same time, it seems like I overheard half the crowd complaining that they don’t know most of the songs. Who pays $150 to see a show if they only know three songs by the band?

3. Reeves had a guitar tech and was getting new guitars handed to him every couple songs. Robert had his four/five guitars on stands behind him and would just swap them out himself. I don’t even remember seeing him tune. He needed no techs.

4. Robert has a couple Supro amps and a couple Roland Cube amps. My guess would be cubes for the Bass VI and Supros for guitar, but I could also see it being the reverse. Dude is such a gear weirdo.

5. The t-shirt designs were all pretty terrible. I got the most black and least offensive one. Still, I can’t imagine that the band really had much to do with these designs. They all seemed so by-the-numbers.

6. No wireless. Everyone had cables. In fact the whole stage setup was not overly complex. The lighting and video was set dressing, no all enveloping like most tours nowadays. It was more like an updated 80s show. Still, no wireless! I can’t remember the last time I’d seen a no-wireless stadium/amphitheater show.

7. Robert messed up Fascination Street. He went into the little Cmin6 descending bit 4 or 8 measures too early. Because of this, the whole band seemed to second guess where they were in the intro. This delighted me. It was so human and great to have an imperfect live experience. I loved it!

8. Some of the old songs got “rocked out”. “A Forest” just sound weird with big, warm sounding guitars and a big kick-snare AC/DC beat. The original recording is so cold and stiff and willfully minimal and restrained. It wasn’t bad, but I feel some songs lost their spirit or intent.

9. The Robert Smith signature guitar looks terrible on anyone but Robert Smith. It looks fine on him, but on anyone else… ridiculous. Conversely, the Reeves Gabrels Spacehawk guitar looks good on anyone.

10. As for the concert overall.. there were a lot of songs, but the time FLEW by. Claudia commented that it seemed to go by in the same amount of time as one of my 22 minute punk rock shows 😉 Overall, it was a totally delightful and emotional experience.

Heat Gun Stripping

I had a few moments tonight at work. I had my friend’s heat gun and I was very curious, so I dove in.

I went for it, and nothing happened… for about 30-45 seconds. Then a big bubble appeared. I stuck my flathead screwdriver under it and a huge piece of poly just lifted up. I kept going, and within 20 minutes it was all off. Holy shit! It was SUPER easy.

Edit: there was 239 grams / 0.527 lbs of finish on the guitar.

Baja Peel Back 3

Baja Peel Back 2

Baja Peel Back 4

Baja Peel Back 1

Baja Stripped Front

Baja Stripped Back

I’m extremely pleased so far.

Refinishing my Baja Telecaster.

I got my Baja Telecaster in 2008 from my friend Todd, formerly of Greenlight the Bombers as well as Replicator touring rhythm guitarist. I coveted this guitar, and then he sold all his gear and moved. This guitar was my bounty for fixing up and selling all of his other gear. It’s hard to believe that I’ve had this guitar for 7 years.

I love everything about this guitar except for the finish. I’m not a huge fan of the butterscotch, but the poly material really feels bad. I thought about getting a different, pre-finished body for it, but that seemed silly. Then, before I could do anything, I ended up getting the EGC, and this tele kind of took a backseat until recently. I’ve been pulling it out and realizing that I really love playing it. After my friend Kevin stripped his Tele, I figured that I could pull off something. Worst case is that I damage it and get another body, or I screw up the finish and have to do it again.

I’ve still not decided what color to paint the guitar. PROBABLY Mary Kaye white, but I might go with late 50s blonde (a la Jim Campilongo), or maybe an early 60s custom color. Thoughts?

Here is what I did today at work after hours.

Baja Front

Baja Front Close

Baja Back Close

Baja Body Angle

Baja Body Straight On

Baja S1 Wiring 1

Baja S1 Wiring2

My friend has loaned me a heat gun. Sometimes soon I will start the great melt.

The Five Best Guitar Sounds EVER!!!!

Not really. That headline is just designed to push buttons. I should name this like an article in a technical journal. On guitar tone and its use to achieve emotional response through technical progression and historical repetition. Okay, maybe not.

Still, here are five guitar sounds that really impressed me for some reason or another. There is no order here based in quality or chronology. This has no deeper meaning. It’s just for fun and the love of music and sound.

1. Wire – Raft Ants. Let’s just forget everything about guitar tone historically. Let take the tools we have at this point in time and see what we can invent. Oh, this sounds really harsh and fun.  Wire – Raft Ants

2. Silkworm – Slow Hands. Sometimes I like my guitars to be guitars; classic, rock guitars. This is a great example of a really natural and talented player using a distorted amp, maybe a fuzz, and, most importantly, a volume knob. I usually don’t like guitar solos, but this has two that I find to be exceptional.


3. Slowdive – Celia’s Dream. I remember getting this album around the time it was released. I didn’t know guitars could do this. People were just re-assigning the place and sonic character of guitar in music. People were making textural music with guitars that was totally separated from the traditional, blues based origins of rock music. It excited me. I still enjoy this song even though it does sound a bit dated now.


4. Shellac – Wingwalker. I first discover Shellac when I went to see the band Tar in Muncie. For some reason Tar was opening for this band Shellac. Tar had been around for years, and this Shellac band seemed fairly new at the time. Oh, and is that guy playing guitar through a PA speaker? Holy balls, that sounds so wrong in the right way.


5. Low – Violence. The first time I heard this song was in my car in Indiana. A band from Minneapolis was in town and I was carting them around to get food. A member brought this CD and put it in my discman on the floor hooked up through a cassette tape adapter. I remember hearing the first few notes and being stunned. The tone was so rich and haunting.

It turned out to be very important. It led me to getting a Pro Reverb amp, which was very similar to the amp Alan from Low was using at the time. When I purchased that amp, I bought it broken knowing that I’d have to fix it up. That made me learn all about how tube amps worked, and that gave me the confidence to pursue music gear and gear repair as a career. Perhaps this is why I put so much weight into music. Music informs my decisions as a musician. Since I tend to be a DIY musician, I did as much work as I could for my own bands. This included recording, gear repair and choice, flyer and album graphics, web design, and quite a bit more. Many musical decisions required research and learning, which I found as thrilling as playing the music. The path of my life was cut using tools I developed by doing all the work necessary to be a DIY musician. I worked for internet companies, I worked as a recording engineer, I repaired gear, I did graphic work, and now I design software guitar amplifiers. It can all be traced back to, in part, chasing cool guitar sounds.

Distortion Pedal Volume Drop (and how hard diode clipping works).

This seems to happen to every guitar player at some time or another. They get a distortion pedal, put it in their signal chain, tweak it to get a good sound, and prepare start rocking out. There is usually a point where they kick on the pedal at a pivotal moment and poof, the guitar seems to almost vanish. The volume knob will be at max on the pedal, but it just can’t seem to keep up.  What gives?

I never personally encountered this issue, but once I became more of a gear head people came to me with this problem. I found a trend. it was usually the combination of super-hot pickups mixed with older style distortion pedals that used clipping diodes to generate the distortion.

Back before the days of super-hot pickups, people were designing very simple distortion boxes. These circuits work by running the guitar signal into a clean(ish) booster of some type, and then running the boosted signal into a passive clipping diode network that places the diodes between the audio signal and audio ground. The diodes cause the distortion that is heard. Some examples of pedals that work in this manner are the MXR Distortion +, the Ross Distortion, the DOD Overdrive 250, the ProCo RAT, and the Boss DS-1.

Let me give a very brief and simplified explanation of what a diode does. A diode will only allow and electrical current to flow through it in one direction, positive or negative.  Which direction it flows is determined by the orientation of the physical component in the circuit.  Let’s say we have a diode that is wired to only pass a positive current. If we try to run a negative current though the diode, it will block it completely. If we try to  put a positive current through it, it will flow just fine, but only once a positive voltage charge has been applied to the diode. This trait is called the diode’s forward voltage. Most silicon diodes used for distortion pedal clipping have a forward voltage of 0.7 volts.

In audio signals, the signal’s voltage corresponds to its loudness. Here is a sine wave, crappily drawn by me.Sine WaveThe center line is zero volts, the peaks are a positive voltage, and the troughs are a negative voltage. Let’s imagine this as the signal coming out of the booster section of a distortion pedal. Following this booster is the clipping section of the circuit. This usually consists of two clipping diodes placed in opposite directions. As I stated above, these clipping diodes are placed between the boosted audio signal and ground. It’s generally known that grounding out an audio signal will mute it. If a straight wire was hooked between the audio signal and ground, the result would be silence (a volume pot on a guitar varies the resistance between the audio signal and ground). Hooking up the diodes between the audio signal and ground will not mute the audio, at least not until the signal voltage reaches the forward voltage of the clipping diode.

If the audio signal never reaches more than +/- 0.7 volts, then the clipping diodes will never reach their forward voltage, they will never be able to bass signal in either direction, and nothing will happen to the audio signal. Should the signal go above +0.7 volts, or below -0.7 volts (and it usually does), that will allow the clipping diodes to reach their forward voltage amount, and the diodes will begin to conduct. Since the diodes are connected to ground, any of the signal voltage that exceeds +/-0.7 volts will be shunted to ground.  I’ve modified my crappy drawing to show the result.Clipped Waveform

So, in short, and what I probably should have said in the first place, the pedals create distortion by amplifying the signal and then hacking off the loudest parts to make a quieter but distorted signal. The amount of level going into the clipping diodes determines the amount of distortion. There is also a passive volume control to determine the desired output level.

Now, as the 1980s progressed, companies began producing louder and louder pickups. These were designed to drive amps harder, to get more sustain, and just sounds generally bigger, louder, and more powerful. This is awesome if that is what is desired.  However, the early distortion circuits were not designed when these very loud and aggressive pickups existed. In a best case scenario, the distortion pedals will never be able to produce an output with a a signal voltage greater than the forward voltages of the clipping diodes. In the case above, this would be a signal of +/-0.7 volts. If germanium diodes are used the result would be a +/-0.4 volt signal. In many cases there are passive circuits in the distortion pedals after the clipping diodes. These passive circuits will take even more level away.

So, why is there sometimes volume loos with distortion pedals?  The distortion pedals simply have maximum voltage output levels that are lower than the levels that are able to be produced by very hot, modern pickups. The voltage of the guitar signal when the pedal is bypassed it going to be hotter and stronger than the highest possible output of the pedal.

There is no real elegant solution. Everything seems like a compromise on some level. The first solution is to change pickups or put some kind of permanent level pad before the distortion unit. Another workaround is to put a clean volume boost pedal after the distortion pedal and only switch it on when the distortion pedal is on. The classic distortion circuits can be modified to clip at a higher threshold, but the tradeoff is that the higher output level sacrifices the saturation amount. There are also many modern distortion pedals that have adapted classic circuits and added more output level. All of these solutions are either clunky or incur some kind of expense. Quite frankly, the people who have come to me in this scenario approached me because they were unable to throw money at the problem.  Still, people love the classic distortion circuits, and people love hot pickups, so we’re always going to encounter situations where these kinds of mismatches can occur.

Who’s that old dude at the show?

I’m thirty eight and a half years old. I play in many bands. One of them is a thrashy, hardcore punk band called Select Sex. My wife, being a wonderful woman, comes to many of the shows even though this is not her scene or style at all. Today, after visiting this page, she crafted the following list.

Top 10 signs you are too old to watch your husband play a hardcore show, by my wife Claudia.

10. The guy who just kicked you is young enough to be your son.
9. The camera he broke costs more than your first car.
8. They don’t check your ID to give you an alcohol wristband.
7. You’d rather be home reading a library book.
6. You come early, not to stand in front, but to find one of the only chairs to sit down in.
5. You pay bills online while the guys are doing sound check.
4. Your back hurts from standing through the opening bands’ sets.
3. When your husband comes home, you do not offer a post show B.J., but you do ask him to take out the compost.
2. The most exciting part of the evening was finding a parking space right in front.
1. Why so loud????

Love you, hon.

Select Sex @ Pehrspace, L.A.

Amp problems were actually cabinet problems.

I have had this 50 watt, modded Traynor head for years now. It’s awesome.  However, I notice for my really loud bands (Cartographer and Select Sex), it just doesn’t have the balls to really get over the insanely loud drummers of those bands.

I tried a number of changes. I messed with coupling cap values to tame the low-end and not use up power for frequencies that couldn’t really be heard live. I tried adding a cap to make a high shelf circuit like on many mid to high gain amps. The mods made the amp crunch in a nicer manner, but it didn’t help with the “push” and the volume.  I checked the bias. I hooked the amp up to a scope to check wattage before clipping. It was giving me 49 watts of clean power, and the bias was spot on for me.

I couldn’t figure it out. I had an amp performing well, I had a good guitar, and I had an awesome cabinet. I’ve discussed my cabinet on this blog before. It’s a Lee Jackson cabinet. It’s very well made with nice wood. It has heavy metal associations, but I though the cab sounded great when I got it. You can see the quality construction in this photo.

Cabinet Repair, etc

I’d replaced the speakers, but I was questioning one of my choices. I had picked up a couple Eminence Governor speakers a while back, but I had not put them in.  Finally, a couple of weekends ago, I had some time.  I went down to the practice space and rewired my cabinet. I cross-loaded the two Mesa/ Celestion C90 speakers with the two Governor speakers.  While doing this I noticed something very wrong.  About 3/4th of the screws that hold the speaker baffle to the rest of the cabinet had come loose.  They weren’t just a little loose.  Many had backed out at least three or four full turns.  Some had come out even more.  This is like finding the lug nuts loose on your car wheels, but you know, without having your life in peril.

I tightened up the baffle screws, and put in the Governors with the existing C90 speakers in an X pattern. I sealed it up, but I didn’t have time to play the when I finished. At the next band practice it seemed to cut a bit more than usual and I didn’t have to turn up the amp as much. I played my first show with it last night, and it was really great. The guitar wasn’t getting lost in the cymbal wash, and there was plenty of volume on tap.

This is a problem that has bitten me in the ass again and again.  When I’m having some technical issue, I’ll assume something is okay because it was okay in the past and it has shown no obvious signs of degradation and failure. Because I tend to be an amp circuit guy, I went looking at the amp’s electronics as soon as something seemed amiss. I looked in my comfort zone. If I had taken the ten minutes to unscrew the back of my cab at the first sign of a problem I would have found it long ago and not have spent so much time looking for issues where there were none to be found.

Finally, this is a good reminder that guitar setups are systems.  Even though we buy all of our gear as separate pieces, we run them all together, and they way they behave when run en masss is not necessarily indicative of how they will run when isolated.

Thanks for reading, friends.