Wednesday, July 23, 2014

2006 Martin D-15 Custom Acoustic Guitar Review


Today we are looking at a 2006 Martin D-15 Custom dreadnaught acoustic guitar. This model is on the lower end of the Martin spectrum, but is still a pretty nice US-made guitar. The custom part is that this instrument have a spruce top and rosewood sides and back, unlike other Martin D-15 guitars that are made of solid mahogany. These were only made for a few years and were distributed exclusively through Musician’s Friend.

Indeed it is made of some nice woods! It has a mahogany neck, Sitka spruce top, and East Indian rosewood sides and back. The bridge is made of East Indian rosewood too. I am not sure where the fretboard came from, but it is rosewood too. Inside there is D1 A-frame bracing, if you have any idea what that means. Ornamentation is sparse -- the body has a matte finish, a simple rosette and body binding, and a nice-looking faux tortoiseshell pickguard. Unfortunately, it looks kind of cheap if you think about it too much.

The neck is pretty sweet. It has a smooth oval profile, and has a glossy finish. It has the traditional 25 1/2-inch scale 1 11/16-inch width nut. 14 of the 20 frets are clear of the body, and they are well-finished and pretty level. The neck is capped by a rosewood headstock overlay, a gold foil logo, and nice quality chromed sealed-back tuners.

This one is in pretty good shape on its 8th birthday. It just has a few marks, dings, and nicks, and the matte finish has been worn shiny in a few places. The frets are still in great shape, and it sets up nicely with a very low action on light gauge strings. Somewhere along the line someone professionally installed a bone nut, which is not a bad thing. It weighs in at around 4 pounds, 6 ounces in case you are keeping track.

How does it work? Despite its entry-level cost it has a definite Martin character and tone. The dreadnaught body style allows for sufficient power, and the low oval profile neck is fast and easy to handle. The bass is loud and full, and the midrange detail is sweet with a good balance between the two. It is fun to play, and is nice for songwriting, fingerpicking, folk, country and bluegrass. Don’t get me wrong – it is not in the same league as my D-18GE, but it is pretty darned good.

I guess the important thing is how much these things cost. Back when they were new, they had a list price of $1499, and a street price of $999, which included a nice-quality hardshell case. These days they are $500 to $600 used guitars, which is not too bad for a US-made Martin that is built with nice woods. Plus, they have all been getting older and the tops have been loosening up, so they sound better than ever.

Check one out, and if you can get put up with the Spartan appointments, they are a pretty good deal. If appearance is important, save up and buy a D-28. It might take a while…


Monday, July 21, 2014

Review of Musical Theatre West’s Beauty and the Beast at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, California


There was a bit of mystery when Musical Theatre West announced its 2013-2014 season, as one of the shows had still not been announced when I bought my presale season tickets. It turns out that MTW was in negotiations to get the rights to produce Beauty and the Beast, and that Disney was reluctant to have the show playing a mere 13 miles from Disneyland. Apparently they worked out their differences, as Beauty and the Beast is the final show of the season, and I had the opportunity to see it this past Sunday.

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking.

If you have kids under the age of 30 (or if you are under 30) you have probably seen Disney’s full-length animated movie from 1991, Beauty and the Beast. It is a neat movie full of catchy tunes, and it earned a passel of awards that year, including Oscars (it was up for Best Picture but did not win), Grammys and even a Golden Globe for Best Picture. Somebody go the bright idea to turn it into a stage musical, and it premiered on Broadway in 1994. Its run lasted 13 years with over 5400 performances, and it is pretty much a classic show at this point.

There is a good reason for this, as it is a neat story that is accompanied by very good music and lyrics. Of course the story loosely follows the old French fairy tale, but it was certainly churched up by music from Alan Menken (8 Oscars, 11 Grammys, 7 Golden Globes and a Tony), lyrics by Howard Ashman (2 Oscars and a Golden Globe) and Tim Rice (3 Oscars, 1 Grammys, and 3 Golden Globes), and a book by Long Beach’s own Linda Woolverton. These folks have had a hand in most every Disney musical that has come out over the past 20 years, as well as many of the most popular stage musicals, and they brought their A-game for Beauty and the Beast.

The basic plot is that a prince is turned into a beast due to his wicked ways, and everybody in his castle is turned into ordinary household objects. Along the way he kidnaps a spunky young woman named Belle and holds her in his castle. To regain his human form he has to somehow get Belle to fall in love with him. It could happen. By the way, if you are a fan of the movie you will notice that there are seven new songs that were written for the stage musical.

The Broadway version is a tough act to follow, as its sets and costumes were over-the-top and magnificent. Musical Theatre West rose to the challenge, and I have heard that this ended up being the most costly production they have ever done.

They got the look right. The rented sets were nice, though some of the backdrops were a bit wrinkly, and there were a few miscues where hanging elements were moved at the wrong time and then hurriedly put back into place. MTW regular Jean-Yves Tessier took care of the lighting, and he certainly seems to have his job figured out – everything was lit perfectly. The costumes (from Musical Theatre of Wichita, supposedly) are top shelf and were assembled under the supervision of Tiia Torchia and Shawn Adrian Decou. Of course Beast had to have incredible make-up, and Denice Paxton did good work there. He was actually more attractive as the Beast than as the Prince, if that makes any sense.

The sound was also very good. There was a 17-piece orchestra under the supervision of musical director Michael Borth, and I counted three keyboard players in the pit, which certainly helped with setting the mood. Unfortunately the musicians were uncredited in the program, and I have no idea if they were union or not. The sound engineering was generally good, with a few hitches along the way. Cogsworth had a wonky wireless transmitter that added a lot of noise to the mix (this was fixed after the intermission), and there were a few incidents where a ton of reverb was left in the signal chain for ordinary speaking parts which was distracting, at best.

All of the basic foundation was solid, but this is such a well-written show that its success hinges on the cast, and the performers (mostly equity) all delivered solid performances. Gwen Hollander earned the role of Belle (the Beauty) and rightly so. Her voice was beautiful and her timing and acting were impeccable. She has grace on the stage, belying her Broadway and touring experience, and it certainly did not hurt that she had played Belle previously.

Garrett Marshall played the Beast, and he rose above the limitations of having his face shrouded for most of the show. He has a strong singing and acting voice, and was able to portray emotion through his body language well. Both he and Christian Marriner (Gaston) have strong stage presence, which made it all the more obvious that this show had the typical Disney trait that male roles are favored. They got all of the good lines, and often times the Belle’s character was secondary and relied on the males in her life to make her complete.

The supporting cast was wonderful, with Brandon Armstrong as Cogsworth, Melina Komas as Babette, Doug Carfrae as Maurice and Robert Ramirez as Lefou. The standout performances were Michael Paternostro’s take on Lumiere and Cathy Newman as Mrs. Potts. Their acting and singing were fantastic, and they almost stole the show.

The ensemble turned in a solid performance, and they were very good dancers (especially the young man that played the bottle opener), and they made good use of Bill Burns’ choreography. Their vocals were well-timed and sounded good, with the exception of some drastic volume differences between them which became distracting on some of the bigger numbers. I loved the Silly Girls and that they used monsters / dancers to help move set elements on and off the stage.

All of this came together well for an almost Broadway-like experience. Musical Theatre West has outdone itself and Beauty and the beast is a good show with fine production values and a good cast, with a little something for everyone -- excitement for the kids and romance for the adults. If you have the chance you should get out and see it before it is gone, but leave the little kids at home with a sitter. This is a long show and they will be squirming in their seats a long time before the final curtain falls (it clocks in at 2 ½ hours, including the 15 minute intermission).

Beauty and the Beast will be playing at the Carpenter Center through July 27, and it has been a good seller for Musical Theatre West. There are still a few tickets left, so grab them while you can. And, be sure to check out their season ticket packages for the 2014-2015 season as they have a great package that includes Big Fish, South Pacific, Les Miserables and Singin’ in the Rain. You can’t beat the value!


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Album Review: Chris Winters Band -- Blue Fever

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the August 8, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Chris Winters Band – Blue Fever

Self Release

11 tracks / 43:21

If you are going to do an album with no lyrics, you had better make sure that your songwriting and performance skills are in tip-top shape. With nothing to distract the listener, they will hang upon every last note you play, and be critical of any missteps. Well the Chris Winters band does not have to worry about this as they accomplished this task handily with their latest instrumental release, Blue Fever.

Chris Winters has been in the Chicago blues scene for years, recording, playing and touring with some excellent folks, including Mississippi Heat and Otis Clay as well as a regular gig with Liz Mandeville Green. His impressive guitar chops have kept him working steadily for years. Winters is inspired by Freddie “The Texas Cannonball” King, and his love of 1950s and 1060s guitar instrumentals has culminated in the production of this album.

Winters is joined on this CD by a passel of other great musicians. He takes care of the guitars, with Steve “The Kid” Howard on bass, Brother John Kattke on Hammond organ, while Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith and Larry Beers share the drumming chores. By the way, Kenny Smith is the son of the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, the legendary drummer and harp master.

Blue Fever is a great follow-up to his last instrumental release from 2004, Impressions. Like before, he did not fall into the trap that is found on some instrumental albums where it ends up being a series of self-indulgent jams that go on forever. Instead, he focused on the songs, and all eleven tracks tell a musical story with the longest clocking in just a bit over five minutes.

And Chris does not get stuck in a rut either, as he moved away from the more jazzy material of his previous release and recorded tunes that cross a number of blues genres. The opener is the upbeat “One a Day Blues” which has a traditional 12-bar blues structure, some nice organ work, and a glorious 1950s throaty guitar tone. He has a fabulous touch on the guitar and his lyrical playing style ensures that the listener will not bemoan the lack of words.

Then the band explores funk with “Freedom Cry” which is nice and with the solid backline of Beers and Howard. Kattke’s keyboards do a nice job of filling the gaps and setting the mood as Winters doubles up on his guitar parts. “Space Boogie” (not a remake of the Jeff Beck song of the same name) is a fast Texas-style boogie, and Chris gets the chance to show off a little with searing guitar solos as Smith hammers out the rock solid drum line.

Things slow down for “Low Tide” which is a laid-back blues tune with more simple bass and drum parts so the guitar can tell the story. After this breather, there is plenty of fancy picking in “Blue Country Rag,” which sounds just like you would expect from the title. There is a definite Albert Lee twang and vibe to this one, which is a good thing in my book.

The title track reminds me of the great melodic blues guitar players, such as Gary Moore or Peter Green. The rich organ sounds and the heavy ride cymbal and snare would fit in well with the best of the early 1970s blues rock releases. This is my favorite track on the album, and this is one where I wish Winters would have taken a few liberties and made it even longer. Five minutes was just not enough for this song.

“Dealing with a Feeling” is a slow and short, but still melodic, and Chris does a fine job of giving his guitar a voice and telling a story without words. They also rock out a bit with “Did You Know” which is a harder blues rock tune with a nicely doubled bass line and a raw electric guitar tone.

After the jaunty swing of “Staring at the Sun, the Chris Winters Band finishes up the effort with “Breaking the Chains.” This funky blues rocker ties together a lot of the genres found in this album, and leaves the listener wanting more. They did not wear out their welcome, which shows a lot of maturity on their part.

Overall, the production is consistently good, and the instruments are recorded well with even tone and all of the tracks have a solid mix. Blue Fever is a fine album, and if you like blues-based guitar instrumentals you have to check it out for yourself. Chris Winters did a great job, and I hope we do not have to wait another nine years to hear more from him.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ernie Ball Power Slinky Bass Strings .055 to .110 Review


A while back I picked up a Musicman Stingray 4-string bass that some misguided soul decided to put enormous strings on in an effort to make it sound like the lower 4 strings of a 5-string bass. It was a stupid cheap deal, so I bought it to flip. Funny enough, his idea actually worked, but that was not what I was looking for and it would be harder to sell it this way so it was time to string it normally. Unfortunately the nut slots were opened up a bit to accommodate the bottom heavy (0.130 for the B!) strings, and it was a compensated nut which would have been a headache to buy. So, I started looking for the best compromise, which ended up being a set of Ernie Ball Power Slinky bass strings (model number P02831).

If you have not been living in a cave for the past 50 years, you have heard of Ernie Ball strings. Mr. Ball was an innovator that came up with the idea of mass-marketing custom gauge strings and he built the business into one of the biggest string manufacturers in the word. That is what happens when you listen to your customers and give them what they need. His son and grandsons now run the company, and the strings are made right here in the US by people that earn a living wage. A few years ago I had the opportunity to tour the factory (near Palm Springs) and it is an impressive organization.

These long-scale Power Slinky strings are indeed beefy, measuring 0.055, 0.075, 0.090 and 0.110. Woot! They are roundwound with nickel-plated steel wrap around a tin-plated hex profile steel core. There is no coating or cobalt going on here, just straight-up strings. Ernie Ball strings still come in individual paper envelopes, but now they are sealed in airtight foil packets. I much prefer this packaging so I know I am going to get fresh strings. You never know how long strings have been sitting around at the store...

Anyway, I eagerly tore open my new foil pack of Slinkys, trimmed them to length and used my Ernie Ball Powerpeg string winder to cinch them up. They seemed to fill the nut slots enough, and after a bit of fussing with the truss rod I got the action to a reasonable height. After a bit of playing it was apparent that this was a good plan as it played just fine.

In fact, it was kind of a big macho thrill. I could wail and pop and slap on this 'Ray and there was no untoward buzzing or clanking. There was a good balance between the strings, and there is nothing on the planet like the zing of a fresh set of roundwound.

Of course, these string were not made to salvage dumbo situations like the one I was in -- these strings are stout enough to maintain decent tension when de-tuned, so I had to try that out too. They are definitely able to meet this challenge, if that is your bag.

Ernie Ball Power Slinky bass strings are very good, and if you play de-tuned and/or are looking for more oomph, their heavier gauges could be just the ticket for you. It will not break the bank to find out either, as they are pretty reasonably priced. They have a list price of $36 and a street price of $17.49, and if you catch a lucky break with a sale or coupon you can get them even cheaper. How can you go wrong?


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tommy Ramone: January 29, 1952 to July 11, 2014

Thanks for everything, Tommy, and rest in peace.

Friday, July 11, 2014

1982 Westone Thunder 1 Bass Guitar Review


My regular readers know I love vintage Japanese guitars and basses, and today we are looking at another one: a really neat Westone Thunder 1 bass from 1982.

In case you are not up to speed on Westone, here is a quick run-down on the brand. Matsumoku was a Japanese company that specialized in making guitars for many brands, including Aria, Epiphone, Vox and more. They built very good instruments, including copies of popular American instruments that caused some legal difficulties.

After building instruments for other companies for all of those years, in 1981 they decided to start their own brand and Westone was born. Their products were never a big hit and in 1987 Matsumoku sold the brand to a Korean company, and by 1991 the brand was gone. Not many of their guitars ere imported to the US, and it seems like most of their products went to the UK.

If you look at this Thunder 1, the most obvious thing is that this looks an awful lot like an Aria Pro II Super Bass due to its clear-finished laminated ash, maple and walnut body. Not to mention the the 2-on-a-side tuners, and the brass nut and bridge. This is not a coincidence, as Matsumoku built those Super Basses too! But, there are a few important differences. This is a bolt-neck bass, it only has 20 frets, and it has a P-Bass split coil pickup. But it does not really matter, as this ends up being a smart-looking bass and it is a pretty fine instrument. Let’s take a closer look…

The neck is a 3-piece maple laminate with an ash overlay on the headstock, and it attaches to the body with a 4-bolt joint and a Westone Made in Japan-marked plate. It has a rosewood fretboard with simple dot inlays, and the aforementioned 20 frets are pretty hefty wire. The tuners look like Westone-branded Gotohs, and there is a silkscreened Westone logo on the headstock. It is a 34-inch scale bass, in case you were wondering.

As I said the body is laminated, and there is a control cavity routed in the back to hold the volume and tone pots. It has its own profile, with shorter horns than the usual Precision Bass, and there is a belly contour carved out of the back. The pickup and electronics are passive, no battery is needed, though it would be easy to add a pre-amp thanks to the easy-access back panel.

This one has not led a pampered life, and there is a bit of finish wear and the logo is wearing off. The top strap pin has been relocated a few times, and does not appear to be original to the instrument. But it has good distance factor thanks to the clear finish, and it does not look too bad. The original frets are still in great shape and the pickup has plenty of output.

And this Thunder 1 still plays well. It sounds just like a P-bass, and the action can be adjusted pretty low. The nut is 1 5/8” wide, so the Fender experience is there, though it does seem a little neck-heavy, thanks to that shorter top horn. Maybe that is why the pin was moved. It weighs in at 9 pounds, 12 ounces, which is not too bad if you consider that this thing is built like a tank.

I like it a lot and the best part is that these basses are not very expensive – nice ones can be had for around $200. I would not sell this one that cheaply, for sure.

There were other variations of the Thunder 1: instruments with black or red finish have solid maple bodies, and Thunder 1A basses came with active electronics. These variants are quite rare and I have not seen an unmolested one come up for sale in a long time.

If you see one of these for a couple hundred bucks and it is still in good shape I say “buy it.” Trust me!