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.

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.

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.

The First-World Suffering of Infinite Possibilities

I’m lucky. I could list a massive number of ways in which I’m lucky, but this is a journal of my gear and audio projects, so I’m going to wade into the shallow end and apply this only to the pre-defined subject.

So, to start again. I’m lucky. I have a large amount of nice gear. Over the course of 20 years of playing guitar and 10 years of fiddling with amps, I’ve gathered a nice collection of stuff I’ve always wanted. I have the original Blackface Fender, restored on my own. I have numerous guitars that make my friends drool. I have plenty of effects. I have a couple extra, useful, awesome tiny amps. I have a solid bass, a rad bass preamp I built myself, and two amazing bass cabs. I have a sparkle-covered drum kit. I can get amazing sounds and ugly sounds, and cover most all of the bases.

So why can’t I just make music for a while? Why do I always go back to wanting to build something different, or re-defining my guitar setup, or trying out some new device? For instance, yesterday I went for about a two mile walk, and for most of the time I was thinking about my Cartographer amp. I realized that I was pushing towards the aesthetic and sound of Shellac’s amps. I thought I was being silly. I kept telling myself (as if I was a separate person), “You have the skill to make anything you want, to create something for yourself that works elegantly and awesomely for its purpose. What do you do? What do you make?”

I waffled between the amp I was planning in the last post, or re-working my existing gear to work for me, and then just making music. I wondered, “Do I need more stuff? Do I have a compulsion?” Like I’ve said, I admire bands who pick their palette and then stick to it. I really don’t want to acquire stuff for the sake of having stuff. In fact, I often have the urge to purge my gear.

Well, if I have to answer myself, I give the answer “Gear is Fun.” For instance, I don’t actually use one of my Fuzzy Bunny pedals in any of my bands, but I think it’s a neat pedal, and I enjoy building them and selling them to my friends. Just like when some bands form and dream about their costumes or playing the big hall in town, I dream about what gear I’ll be using, and what sounds I can make with my pre-defined gear. The problem though is that I usually have the means to make it happen, so I start the project and my time and resources get stretched more and more thin. I’ve not played guitar with another person since the last Cartographer show, and the next GvsG practice is not ’til mid December, yet I’ve spent a large amount of time contemplating my guitar gear.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I just feel silly. I feel silly for being confused by what I want to use, and I feel silly for caring so much, and I feel silly for not being as grateful as I am for what I do own. A big part of making the pedals is knowing that people think it’s cool to own something that I built. There is an element of ego to it, as well as an element of wanting to be the guy who helps his friends get what they want. I just have this picture of my head of being on stage with my weirdo amp which I conceived and built, playing insane music, and generally seeming awesome or confusing.

So how do I get there? What is the first step? What really matters, and what is just bullshit?