Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Yamaha F335 Acoustic Guitar Review

Hiya!

Things are tough for beginning guitarists, as it is hard for them to get their fingers scrunched together to make chords they cannot remember, and their fingers hurt like crazy for the first few months. It seems like a crime that many entry-level guitars play like crap too, so these players think they are not doing well when part of the problem is the instrument itself. One answer to this might be the Yamaha F335 acoustic, which is a pretty good guitar for short money.

This is an entry-level dreadnought from the Japanese company, and is their prime contender in a market where guitars sell for the price of a nice pair of sneakers and change hands on the used market for next to nothing. Though much maligned, these imported guitars can be quite good. This Yamaha was made in Indonesia and it has nice materials and parts so the labor costs must be almost non-existent. Human rights advocates be warned…

The woods are good enough, with a laminated spruce top and meranti back and sides, a wood from the South Pacific that is sort of like mahogany. Only the top is bound, which is not surprising at this price point. The fretboard and bridge are made of real rosewood, which is amazing when you consider that Gibson is using all kind of bizarre stuff for Les Paul fretboards instead of rosewood. The body is sprayed in a glossy Tobacco Brown Sunburst, which is probably my least favorite part of this guitar. It is a nauseating combination of hues, but fortunately there is a faux tortoiseshell pickguard to break things up a little bit.

The kind of beefy neck is quite good, if you do not have small hands. It has a 1 11/16-inch wide nut and 20 frets (14 free) with a 25 ½-inch scale. The rosewood fretboard has simple dot and there is an adjustable trussrod. On one end there are sealed die-cast tuners (gold plated!), and on the other end there is a compensated plastic bridge saddle. One bummer is that there is only one strap pin. Why do so many manufacturers only give you one?

Anyway, this Yamaha is pretty well put together. The finish is a bit thick, with just a few imperfections here and there. Mostly there, actually. Intonation is good enough and the no-name tuners hold well. The nut is good and the frets are about as good as the ones that you will find on a new Gibson Les Paul (which is not saying much, I guess). This one came with a pretty darned high action, so fortunately the neck is adjustable. I was able to get it low enough on the first twelve frets, but after there it was still high, so I lowered the bridge a bit, and now it is a reasonably good player. Oh yeah, it also got fresh set of light gauge Martin strings when I did the set-up. That might have helped things a bit.

It sounds good too, with a glorious amount of volume and it is fairly well balanced from string to string. It has a warm tone too, making it a very pleasant sounding guitar. It turns out that I like it – go figure. Buy one if you don’t have a lot of dough and want to get a playable acoustic that sounds good.

I keep taking about what a good value the Yamaha F335 is, so how cheap is it? How does a list price $359.99, and street price of $130 sound to you? For this price you are not going to get a case, but you do get the Yamaha lifetime warranty. Check one out for yourself and see what you think!

Mahalo!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Keith McMillen Batt-O-Meter Battery Tester Review

Aloha!

It is a heartbreaker to have an effect pedal or active electronics battery die in the middle of a performance – we have all been there. But it is really expensive to change out all of your 9-volt batteries before a show, and sometimes it is a hassle to gain access to test them with a conventional battery tester. This is where Keith McMillen Instruments’ Batt-O-Meter comes to the rescue.

The concept behind the Batt-O-Meter is that you simply plug the permanently attached ¼-inch lead to an effect pedal input or an instrument output, and it will let you know if the battery is any good. You do not have to find a screwdriver or pull the pedal apart to get to the battery. This is a pretty cool concept!

But there is more to it than that, this is a pretty neat piece of equipment that is a bit smaller than a normal-sized stomp box, so it will easily fit in a guitar case or gig bag pocket. On the left ide is the test switch and another switch that allows you to select rechargeable, alkaline or carbon Zinc batteries. On the other side are external terminals, and on the bottom is the integrated lead with a gold-plated ¼-inch male jack.

Just plug it in an hold the test switch, and on its LED display, it is able to show battery type, voltage, percentage of battery life, hours remaining of normal use, and low battery status.

The Batt-O-Meter is powered by its own 9-volt battery (not included) with a self-test function.

So, when you plug it into a pedal, effect pedal or active guitar, it measures the power being pulled from the battery, compares that load to the battery's remaining energy, and calculates the remaining hours of battery life. 
The Batt-O-Meter is designed for circuits powered by a single battery 9-volt battery or combinations of AA or AAA batteries that come in under 10.23-volts (the maximum reading). One caveat is that the tester will only work with negative ground circuits (most pedals), so if you have a positive ground pedal you are SOL.

In my world, this thing worked really well. With my collection of pedals, I could not find any that would not work with it. My active basses are mostly 18-volt, but on my Jazz with EMGs it also delivered the goods. I did a few tests where I used the tester and then pulled the battery out and used a conventional voltmeter, and the Batt-O-Meter is very accurate. The only thing it did not work on was my Martin acoustic with factory-installed Fishman Isys preamp – it would not give any sort of reliable reading on it. On the plus side, this guitar has an easy-to open battery box, so it is not too big of a deal. Overall I give this product a solid A!

By the way, if you have a 9-volt, AA or AAA battery that is not installed, you can also use the terminals on the side of the Batt-O-Meter for testing. Easy as pie.

The Batt-O-Meter is a pretty neat piece of work, and it is going in my road case. If you work on guitars all the time you might want to think about getting one of these for the bench. It could save a lot of disassembly time when chasing down electrical problems. If you are interested in getting one they are not terribly expensive, with a list price of $34.95 and a street price of $20. Check one out for yourself!

Mahalo!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bugera V5 5-watt Class A Amplifier Review

Howdy!

These are heady times we live in, with everybody and their brother making nice-quality all tube practice guitar amps at very reasonable prices. I have reviewed oodles of these for Rex and the Bass, and today we get to take a look at another on: the Bugera V5.

Bugera? This is a relatively new brand (it launched in 2007), so how did they happen to get into the guitar amplifier business? Well, you are not going to like the answer – it is a division of Behringer. Yep, the same company that cranks out mediocre effect pedals, microphones and PA systems like there is no tomorrow. But, before you click on another link to get off this page, Bugera was Behringer’s introduction to all-tube market, and the V5 just happens to be a nice little amp.

For starters it is little, measuring approximately 17 x 12 x 17 inches, and weighing in at a touch under 25 pounds. This Chinese-made amp has a cool retro look, with 2-tone vinyl over its solidly built cabinet and chicken-head retro knobs for the few controls it has.

The V5 is a hand-wired 5-watt Class A all-tube amplifier with a single 12AX7 in the preamp stage and a single EL84 to provide the power. Bugera says these tubes are all tested at the factory and are matched in pairs. I am not going overseas anytime soon to verify their claims, so we will just have to take their work for it. The sound is run through a single 8-inch speaker that the company custom builds for itself, all the way down to stamping their own frames and grinding the pulp to form the cones. Right.

The controls are super-easy to figure out. On the front is the instrument input and the power switch, as well as knobs for gain, tone, volume and reverb. That is it! Around back is the power switch, and IEC cable socket (yay!) a line/headphone outs, and the attenuator control. The attenuator is a nice feature. Though 5 watts does not seem like much, with this thing fully cranked your mom will get super-pissed in a hurry if you are cranking out. Tube power is loud. The attenuator allows the amp output to be dialed down to 1 or 0.1 watt without losing any tone (i.e. overdrive). Or, you could plug in your headphones to keep everybody off your back.

Looking a little closer at the Bugera V5, it can be seen that it is really well put together. The Tolex and sparkly grill cloth are neatly applied, the joints are clean and even, and the wiring is very tidy. To be able to sell this for $200 and still make money must mean that their Chinese labor is incredibly inexpensive.

The proof is in the pudding though, and it turns out that the V5 is a really nice sounding amplifier. I tried it with my Tele, Strat and Les Paul, and it brought out the best tones in all of these guitars. For starters, there is no added noise, buzz, or hum, probably because of the printed circuit boards they use in conjunction with the tube power and preamps.

Bugera says the tubes are pre-burned in, but I noticed an improvement in tone as they burned in further. The forte of this amp is its naturally sweet classic rock/blues tone. It has a good clean tone that replicates exactly what you are playing, and as gain gets added in, it becomes perfect for blues and eventually delivers a respectable gnarly distortion for rocking out. The 8-inch speaker holds up well and does not start to crackle and pop at higher volume levels like many of these mini tube amps do. For a change the speaker is not the weak link in a combo amp!

The operation of the tone knob is subtle, so you will not observe drastic changes as it is turned (they call this a “Vintage Equalizer”). The reverb is a digital unit, which sounds a little dry to me, but it is certainly usable, especially if there are other instruments or vocals in the mix. For $200, I am not expecting a tank reverb.

The one thing you will not get is a good metal tone, but if that is what you are looking for you would not be reading this review in the first place.

It is not super loud, but 5 watts of tube power will get you pretty far. It is perfect for practicing at home, and would be good enough for coffee house or small church gigs. But, once you start getting into painfully loud garage band practices, jam sessions and paying gigs you are going to need and want more. And I am pretty sure that adding a 12-inch speaker to the auxiliary out is not going to get you much further. It is what it is.

As long as you are realistic about how much volume you are going to get out of this thing, the Bugera V5 5-watt all-tune guitar amplifier is a very good value. It is well made, it looks nice and it sounds very good. These amps have a list price of $259.99 and a street price of $200, which puts it nicely in line with the slew of other great little amps that are on the market today. Check one out and see what you think!

Mahalo!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Jumpin’ Jack Strobel – Things Have Changed

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the August 29, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Jumpin’ Jack Strobel – Things Have Changed

Blues Leaf Records

www.pianojack.com

www.bluesleaf.com

11 tracks / 46:12

Jumpin’ Jack Strobel is a veteran showman, and his vocals and piano performance skills were earned the old fashioned way – through plenty of gigging and hard work. He hails from the Empire State and in his travels he has played with gifted locals as well as big-name bluesmen, including Kid Ramos, Lynwood Slim and Gatemouth Brown.

Things have Changed is the follow-up to Jack’s 2003 debut album, and he has gone in a different direction this time by compiling a collection of eleven cover tunes. They range from blues standards and big hits to stuff that I have never heard before. The one thing that these songs have in common is that they are all performed regularly in his live shows.

For this project, Strobel takes on the lead vocals as well as the piano and Hammond B3 organ responsibilities. He is joined by his usual backline of Mike Lampe on upright bass and Steve Brown on drums. Jack’s longtime friend Andy Riedel plays the guitar, and assumes the producer‘s role. Special guests Layonne Holmes, Ricky Laurie Collins and Big Joe Fitzpatrick also appear on backing vocals for a few of the tracks.

When I first listened to this CD, I was taken by the sense of confidence that Strobel and his band exude while performing. His strong voice is touched with humor and honesty, and his keyboard work is rock solid. The rest of the musicians are no slouches either, and with the fine job they did of recording and mixing this material, it is a pleasure to listen to.

The first track, “Mother Earth,” is a neat take on Memphis Slim’s 1951 original (and Slim’s most successful song, by the way). The original 12-bar format and lyrics are retained, but there are no horns or harp to be found here, and the backing vocals have more of a New Orleans tone to them. Jack’s voice is rich and deep, and his honky tonk piano is well-miked and sounds as clear as glass. One thing that has not changed about this song is the classic message that no matter what happens, we are all going to pass on from this world some day.

Strobel included a few Bob Dylan songs on this disc, but they are not the choices that one would normally expect. In particular, “Things Have Changed” is quite obscure, having been written for the 2000 film, Wonder Boys. Jack’s version is brasher, with the mood effectively set by the organ and heavy guitar. The other Dylan track is a re-do of “Don’t Think Twice” from 1963, and it has been transformed from a folk song into a slow-paced gospel-tinged ballad. Strobel did a nice job with both of these, and it is certainly nice to hear these songs being performed by someone that can sing well.

There are a few big-time blues hits sprinkled in, too: Ray Charles’ 1957 hit “Get on the Right Track Baby” and “Bad Bad Whiskey,” a 1950 top-charter from Amos Milburn. Both of these tunes maintain the 50s rock and blues feel, which is helped along by the tasteful backing vocals of Lampe, Brown and Riedel.

My favorite track on Things Have Changed is Strobel’s take on Duke Robillard’s “You Mean Everything to Me.” This song has been re-imaged into a jazz-tinged blues number, and everything comes together here perfectly. The bass has a lovely woody tone, Jack has the perfect feel for the keys, and Riedel’s guitar completes the smoky vibe.

There is not space to cover every track here, but the remaining covers come from every corner of the country: John Hiatt, Charles Brown, Lynwood Slim, Little Walter Jacobs and the lovely Gillian Welch. These songs are all equally well-done, and as a whole they fit in with the rest of the material to make a work that can stand on its own.

Things Have Changed is a collection of very good American music, and Jumpin’ Jack Strobel has proven to be a respectful caretaker of this original material as he applies his own mold to it. He has gone through a period of growth over the past few years, and I look forward to seeing if this results in the creation of more original material and new projects. I am sure he will have plenty to say!

Mahalo!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

1990 Gibson Les Paul Standard Electric Guitar Review

Aloha!

Today we are looking at a real peach of a guitar that most any rock guitarist would love to have in the arsenal: a slightly tattered but fine-playing 1990 Gibson Les Paul Standard.

I will be the first one to say that Gibson guitars of the past few years have slipped markedly in quality, and finding one that plays well right out of the box is not an easy task. This is especially galling when you consider how much they cost. I had a hard time finding a new one that I liked, so I ended up getting a used one that played great and sounded even better than it looks.

It did come to me with a few issues, and the most notable was a roughly-repaired headstock break. Also, some time over the past few decades someone replaced the original Kluson Deluxe tuners with sealed-back Schallers. And lastly, it was in terrible need of a set-up. All of these issues were handily remedied by my friends at Long Beach Guitar Repair, so the headstock joint is cleaner, it now has the right machine head son it, and it has the super fun low action going on.

This one is finished in a tasteful Cherryburst with cream-colored binding and plastic bits and chrome hardware. I always liked the simpler looks of the Standard models when compared to the Custom models. It has a solid (not chambered) mahogany with a carved maple top, and it is not too terribly heavy, coming in around 10 pounds, which is about right for a Les Paul

The mahogany neck has the 1950s rounded profile, and it is capped with a rosewood fretboard with mother of pearl inlays. Did you know that Gibson is not using rosewood on these anymore? You get some sort of dyed maple substitute instead. Screw that! Twenty-four years later the frets are level and are still in great shape. I know they say that new Les Pauls are all Plek’d, but my god their necks are lumpy and the frets still need to be leveled when the guitar comes out of the box. The neck is capped off with the classic Gibson logo and Les Paul script on the headstock.

Now that it has been put back to stock, the hardware is just what you would expect with the aforementioned Klusons and a Tune-o-matic bridge with a stopbar tailpiece. The electronics include 490R and 498T pickups that are wired through normal potentiometers. No printed circuit boards or goofy push-pull pots on this one. Over the years the hardware has tarnished and the finish has gotten a little cloudy and received some light dings and scratches, but most of this would buff out easily enough. I would certainly not trade the feel of this neck – it is the easiest playing Les Paul I have ever owned (I have it set up with 0.010 Slinkies, BTW).

The tone is marvelous, too. Over time the finish has hardened and the original pickups have aged to become ultra thick and juicy. It can be warm and mellow, or gloriously beefy and overdriven. The sustain, harmonics and dynamics of this guitar are second to none. If you do not mind a few dings and scratches and a repaired headstock, there really is no downside this instrument.

For now, this is the ultimate Les Paul for me, and I would be hard-pressed to find another as good. I hope your search will be as fruitful!

Mahalo!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

BOSS DD-7 Digital Delay Pedal Review

Howdy!

I have been on a pretty steady roll with BOSS pedal reviews, and this month is no exception as we take a look at the DD-7 Digital Delay pedal.

Roland’s BOSS division makes effect pedals for the everyday working musician. These are folks that cannot afford the boutique pedals, or more realistically, they realize that good is good enough (sort of a Voltaire attitude). You have seen that you pay whatever you want can pay anything you want for guitar effect pedals, with the choices include crummy junk for twenty bucks all the way up to hundreds of dollars for stuff that was put together by people in first-world countries. BOSS pedals fall in the middle, as they are reasonably priced and good quality, making them a good value.

The BOSS DD-7 Digital Delay pedal provides up to 6.4 seconds of delay, and can also function as a looper with up to 40 seconds of recording time. It is a neat piece of work and is fairly easy to use (for a delay pedal, anyway).

The DD-7 is a standard single-space sized pedal, measuring 2.9 inches wide by 2.4 inches tall by 5.1 inches long, and it weigh in at a touch under one pound. See? The metric system will never catch on as long as I am on watch! This pedal runs on a single 9-volt battery or it takes the optional BOSS PSA adapter (which is a good idea as it burns through batteries like crazy). It draws 55 mA at 9 volts, in case you are thinking of hooking it up to a pedal board power system. By the way, if you run the unit on battery, make sure you unplug the input(s) when you are not using it, as either input jack acts as the power switch.

It has the same general style as other BOSS pedals, but this one comes in a striking shade of white. The outside of the sturdy metal case has a two 1/4 inputs and outputs (in case you are going stereo), an input jack for hooking up an external footswitch or expression pedal, and a jack for the aforementioned AC adapter. The expected BOSS high quality is to be found here, with a smooth finish, clean wiring, and knobs that have a nice feel. These knobs include Effect Level, Feedback, Delay, and MODE. Here is what they do:

- Effect Level: adjusts mixture of delay effect and input. It you crank t all the way up you will only get the delay effect sound with no input sound mixed in.

- Feedback: adjusts the number of times the delay sound is repeated. The Feedback knob does not work HOLD mode.

- Delay: adjusts the delay time based on the position of the MODE knob. This knob also does not work in HOLD mode.

- MODE: provides 4 different ranges of delay times, HOLD (looping function), MODULATE (a chorus effect), ANALOG (a more natural sounding delay, similar to the BOSS DM-2), and REVERSE (a whacky space-age reverse tape sound).

The stereo output are pretty cool, as they allow panning to create spatial audio sweep effects or separate dry and wet signal paths, which is handy for the studio and the stage.

A little more info about the external switch input is probably in order here. This jack allows the user to control some of the DD-7 functions in a hands-free mode. Delay time, feedback, and effect level can be changed with an expression pedal expression, which sounds like a great idea – but, I did not have one to try out the feature. Tap tempo can be controlled from an external footswitch, which I do have, and it worked very well. You can do tap tempo without the footswitch, but it is way easier with one, so spend a couple of extra bucks to pick one up if you do not already have one.

The DD-7 works really well when you put it to work. It is easy to use with only a little bit of a learning curve, and the delay is clear but not too sterile. And I love the ANALOG mode, which provides a very warm tone that is pretty darned close to that of a non-digital pedal. The MODULATE function gets kind of close to a chorus sound, and if you do not have a chorus pedal this one will work in a pinch, but it is not your best solution. And the REVERSE function is pretty much not worth using.

The HOLD mode is a pretty good looper, and if you have not used one, this BOSS pedal would be a good opportunity for you to see if you would really want to buy one. Keep in mind that there is no save function, though.

If you are searching for a good quality digital delay that is affordable digital delay, the BOSS DD-7 is the right pedal for you. It will get the job done and is certainly reasonably priced with a list price of $264.50 and a street price of $149.99. They hold their value well on the used market, so you are better off buying new and getting the BOSS 5-year warranty.

Mahalo!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Kat and Co. – I Kat the Blues

Hello!

This CD review was originally published in the September 26, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

ToneTrade Records

www.katandco.co.uk

www.tonetrade.co.uk

10 tracks / 36:11

The main reason I am drawn to the blues is the diversity of what is performed within the genre. Blues musicians come from all backgrounds and nationalities, so the basic building blocks of their music are painted with these influences. This is why we get to hear blues with hints of country, hip hop, soul, gospel, world music, or whatever. Kat & Co. is a perfect example of this, as their new album I Kat the Blues serves up a version of blues that is unique from what I have heard before, but is still unmistakably the blues.

This London-based group is a multinational crew fronted by American chanteuse Kathleen Pearson. She is joined by guitarist (and producer) Francesco Accurso and Federico Parodi on keyboards and harmonica. The rest of the band for this album is made up of Vincenzo Virgillito on bass and Nick Owsianka on drums. Kat & Co. should be commended for not taking the easy route by filling up their debut album with cover tunes. They have been busy writing, and eight of the ten tracks are originals, with two wisely chose covers.

The first track is one of these originals, and “New Spleen Blues” kicks things off on a strong note with a hard guitar tone, fat bass, and a spooky keyboard sound. Then as soon as we hear Pearson’s voice it is apparent that this is going to be a powerful and soulful blues album. She has a unique and edgy singing style that almost drops into spoken word at times. It is hard to describe, but her voice is wonderful! The lyrics are refreshingly modern as she chastises those who hide behind their phony online personas.

The group is joined by Mud Morganfield on “Payin’ My Dues,” and he has a great chemistry with Pearson as they trade vocals. The lyrics are a clever back and forth in the classic “he said, she said” style with the inevitable ending of the shiftless musician getting kicked to the curb by his lady. The saucy vibe of this song makes it one of the standout tracks on the disc.

“The Scene” features a few guest vocalists, too, with the tremendous Lil’ Jimmy Reed and Chad Strenz teaming up with Kathleen. This song takes a new twist on an old story, describing the bar life from three points of view: the lady (Pearson), the gent (Reed), and the bartender (Strenz).

“Story of Two Pounds” is a fun piece that tricks the listener into thinking it is a country song and then launches into full-on boogie-woogie mode. Parodi does a bang-up job on the piano as Pearson and the boys go back and forth on the vocals that suggest that maybe we should not read too much into the panhandler’s motives – maybe he just needs a couple of bucks to get by.

All of the tracks on I Kat the Blues are solid, but I have to call out “Make it Rain” as my favorite of the bunch. It starts slowly with electric piano and sweet harp work from Parodi, and then builds with electric guitars and bass until it turns into a full-blown gospel song. Pearson draws from deep down to belt out the lyrics and she is joined by Anna Ross, Yasmin Kadi and Aaron Pereira on the background vocals. This song is the high water mark where their musicianship and songwriting are both at their best.

The two cover tunes are also nice pieces of work. “Tired of Tryin’” is a smoking roadhouse version of Johnny Winters’ original, and Mark Knopfler’s “Your Own Sweet Way” brings this album to a close with tasty lead guitar work and very smart drum fills. After dropping a few pretty vocal harmonies, Pearson drops out of the song early and Parodi finishes things up on the organ.

I Kat the Blues is a surprisingly mature first effort from Kat & Co. and I appreciate their approach to the blues that provides a new and interesting sound. If you are a fan of blues or soul music you will find something in here that will please your senses. I hope you get a chance to give it a listen!

Mahalo!