Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2003 Gibson SG Standard Guitar


Holy cow, a Gibson with a decent neck! I’ve seen (and bought) a seemingly endless procession of Gibson guitars with crappy fretwork and bum necks, so finding this SG is a treat.

It is a crying shame that people continue to buy Gibsons for thousands of dollars that need fret jobs or fretboard planning right out of the box. I can only figure that most of them never get played very much.

Anyway, the Gibson SG is a classic guitar that was introduced in 1961 as a cheaper version of the Les Paul. It has not really changed much over the years, and to be honest I think they play a bit better (easier) than the Les Paul models.

This unmodified example is an SG Standard that was built in July of 2003, and is finished in glossy black over its mahogany body and neck. It has chrome hardware, including Gibson Deluxe tuners and a Tune-o-matic bridge with a stopbar tailpiece.

The humbucker pickups are a 490R at the neck and a 498T at the bridge. They are wired in the typical Les Paul fashion: two volume and two tone pots with a 3-way selector switch.

As I said before, the neck is what makes this SG so good. It is a standard scale (24.75-inch) neck, with a bound rosewood fretboard and trapezoidal inlays. BTW, the only time I ever use the word “trapezoidal” is when I talk about Gibson guitars. Anyway, they got this one right. The fretboard is true, and the frets are dead nuts level. The fret edges are smooth as silk, and the action is low and buzz free.

And lastly, this one comes in at around 7 pounds. This is a real blessing for any of you out there that have grown used to 11 pound Les Pauls. It almost feels like a toy in comparison.

The moral of this story is that there are still some good Gibsons out there, but they are few and far between -- always try before you buy.


Monday, May 30, 2011

ESP Vintage 4 Bass


Today we are looking at the ESP Vintage 4 bass guitar. The Vintage series was introduced in 2007, and has not been a very hot seller for the company.

I reviewed the Vintage Plus strat a few months ago and ground it about the overdone phony relic look. There is the same concern about the Vintage 4, but the appearance is the only major gripe I have as it is still a great bass.

For starters, this is a real live ESP bass, not an LTD model that was made by craftsmen in Japan, not by little kids in some third world country. And every ESP bass (or guitar) I’ve had has been a great player with no cosmetic or functional flaws.

And the Vintage 4 is no exception, this is a super smooth-playing bass, and the build quality is first rate. The neck is spot on, with perfect fretwork, and a great action right out of the back.

The body is alder, and has a traditional Precision Bass shape. As I said, it has a relic look, which some genius in the design department decided to cover in clear lacquer. It looks horrible.

The hardware is very good, with a Gotoh high-mass bridge and vintage-look tuners. ESP has carried over the trussrod adjustment at the base of the neck, with no cutout in the pickguard to access it. Again, pure genius.

The maple neck also gets the relic treatment, but it is very cozy. I like the ESP inlay at the 12th fret, which hearkens back to the ESP 400 models that inspired this bass.

The electronics are first-rate, as ESP sourced Seymour Duncan P and J pickups. The wiring and joints are very neat, and the cavity is nicely coated. The controls are two volume pots and a master tone control.

The Vintage 4’s electronics work well, too, but then again I have always been a sucker for PJ-equipped basses. I find it easy to get any tone from Motown thump to gnarly loud fingerstyle, and everything in between. This bass can do most anything you need from a 4-string bass, if you can get past the way it looks.

These basses ship in a black ESP deluxe tolex hardshell case, which is to be expected at this price. And that price is the final deal-killer for me.

As you may know, the dollar has been weak for a long time, and ESP needs a lot more dollars to make the same amount of Yen. The list price for the ESP Vintage 4 bass is a nut-shrinking $2499, and I did not see new ones for any less than $1499 online. That is Sadowsky Metro series money, so you can see why ESP is having some trouble moving these. There are a lot better values for your money at this price point if you want to buy something new.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jodix WMA to MP3 Converter Freeware

Good day!

Should you ever need to convert .wma files to .mp3 format, you do not have to purchase expensive and/or complicated software. Jodix.com has a great freeware program that is easy to use, and will convert all Windows Media formats, including .wma, .wmv, and .asf.

The trickiest part is figuring out what file to download from the jodix.com website. There are a lot of Google ads with hyperlinks that will take you to other websites with .wma converters that cost money. Just click on the link on the left side of the page under the Freeware header.

After completing the install, the process is easy. There is good support in the help section of the program if you get stuck. Here is a quick tutorial (pretty much lifted from the help section):

Step 1: Add one or multiple Windows Media files to convert by clicking the Add Files icon.

Step 2: After adding files, you can modify MP3 settings and edit ID3 tag (if you wish). The ID3 tag can be derived from the input file automatically.

Step 3: Repeat step 1 and step 2 to add more files.

Step 4: click the Start icon to start the conversion process.

That is about it. Pretty easy, huh? I see that Jodix has a few other freeware conversion programs on their website, so I will have to give those a try and let you know if I find anything helpful


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Audacity Audio Editing Freeware

Buenos dias, amigos!

Have you ever wanted to edit a troublesome f-bomb out of a piece of music? There is plenty of software around to accomplish this, but you sure don’t want to shell out a bunch of cash to do it.

Well, it is not too hard, and I recently dusted off my copy of Audacity’s freeware to clean up a Man Man song that was part of a show I was doing sound for. Here are the basic instructions of what you will need to do:

1. Download and install Audacity. You can get it for free at http://audacity.sourceforge.net

2. Use Audacity to browse for and open the song you want to edit. It has to be in .mp3, .wma, or .wav format. Always make a copy to mess with, as you do not want to screw up your original source.

3. Use the Audacity playback controls (at the top left of the screen) to find the part of the song you want to edit, and then hit the pauseicon. Note that the music is displayed graphically on the stereo scope patterns, and you can zoom in (using the menus at the top), and visually find and select the part of the song you are going to want to edit.

4. Mess with the zoom to get a good close up of the scope pattern, and play and rewond the song until you figure out exactly where to place the cursor at the start of the word. Then you can drag the cursor to select the entire word of phrase you want to edit. Make sure you select the stop icon so the song does not continue playing.

5. Then you can select the “Generate” menu, and choose what you want to replace your selection with. You can choose “Silence”, “Tone” or “Effect”. Be careful with the effects you choose, because at higher volume levels sometimes you can still tell what they were originally singing about.

6. Play it back to make sure you are satisfied. You can always hit Control/Z to undo if you don’t like what you did.

By the way, you will also need to download Lame for Audacity to be able to save your work. Audacity is unable to provide the mechanism to save your work in its original file format for legal reasons, but you can download this file and install it yourself.

Next time we will cover the software you can use to covert those pesky .wma file to mp3s.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Jan-Al Road Cases

How’s it going?

Over the years I have collected quite a few used flight and road cases for my music gear, but all of these cases were new at some point and were probably specially built to somebody’s specifications.

Well, I have actually have had three cases built to my specifications: two for basses and a coffin for my mixer and light controller. All of them came from Jan-Al cases of Los Angeles.

Jan-Al has been around since the 1980s (I think) and have always been a great alternative to the industry powerhouse, Anvil.

They build cases for the local sports teams (L.A. Kings and Dodgers), as well as symphonies and major touring music acts. And they can make cases for anything you can imagine. And, if they have not made one like yours before they will figures out how best to do it.

You can have your choice of construction materials, and interior fabrics. They can also custom cut foam and shock mount your precious and delicate electronics.

The cases I bought have been beat to crap by baggage handlers and bus drivers, but I have not had any failures, and the hinges and latches still work as well as they did when they were new.

If they ever do need repair, it would be easy enough for me to take them back for service since I am local. I would not be so lucky if I was dealing with the fly-by-night companies that sell generic cases on eBay.

You can check out their wares at www.janalcase.com


Monday, May 23, 2011

Fender Lone Star Stratocaster


In 1996 I was giddy like a schoolgirl when I heard that Fender was coming out with a Lone Star Stratocaster that had a humbucker at the bridge and two single coil pickups. I like having a humbucker at the bridge so I can get a thicker/heavier tone and more variety than the traditional SSS configuration.

The HSS configuration is no biggie nowadays, but it was cool beans when this guitar was introduced.

Spec-wise, there was not much else new with the Lone Star model. It had the typical components of the US-built Fenders of the day: a matte finish neck, large bridge saddles and sealed back tuners. And, of course, guitars of this era were not entirely true to the contours that Leo came up with back in the 1950s. But overall, it looked, felt and played like a strat.

But it came with bitchin’ electronics right out of the box: two Seymour Duncan Texas Special single coils and a Pearly Gates at the bridge. Though there does not seem to be much more output than a regular SSS-equipped strat, these pickups provide a better base for any distortion you might want to inject into your rock and/or blues.

The initial run of Lone Star Stratocasters did not sell very well, and it was discontinued when Fender introduced the American Fat Strat Texas Special in 2002. Apparently buyers that wanted a strat were looking for the clean tone that the conventional 3 single-coil models were able to provide.

Fender has since re-issued the Lone Star Stratocaster with the same improvements other Fenders have gotten over the last 15 years, and it looks like this model is not going away any time soon.

The guitar in the photos is a 1997 model, which is one of the handful of Lone Stars that I have owned though the years. I sold it to a buddy of mine that is in a classic rock band, and he has been super happy with it.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Memory Lane: Gallien-Krueger 250ML

Hi there!

For its size, the Gallien-Krueger 250ML has to be the loudest combo amplifiers I ever owned. And it is small: 13” wide by 9” tall by 6“ deep and weighing in at only 22 pounds.

It seems like yesterday, but these amplifiers were introduced in the 1980s and were a huge hit because of their small size and high output (100 watts). They came with two 6.5-inch Pyle speakers in their aluminum cases, but also have two 16-ohm outputs if more macho speaker cabinets were needed. They

Though these amps have plenty of features, they are not a total knob farm. There are inputs on the front for the instrument, a footswitch and headphones (yay!). There were also A and B channels, as well as master volume and gain controls, and a four band EQ. For good measure GK also included kind of useless non-adjustable echo and reverb ON/OFF switches.

On the back there is a lot less going on, with extension cabinet outs, an effects loop and a direct out socket.

Gallien-Krueger got Alex Lifeson of Rush to endorse the 250ML, and that was enough to get me to buy one back in 1989 (or so). BTW, musical instrument manufacturers should pay attention to the trends and market their wares better, including getting them to top performers. It really does work…

Anyway, it was a fun amplifier for me. The 250ML had a ton of power and could destroy my hearing, and never broke down on me (or overheated and shut down). But it was kind of a one-trick pony. I only liked its clean sound channel, and the tone was way too sharp when using the internal speakers at higher volume levels.

I eventually sold it because I never needed the kind of volume potential it had, and craved the warm sound of tubes that it could never provide. I believe I replaced it with a Fender Champ, and have most always had some sort of Champ variant ever since.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hapa-haole Songs


I am on a ukulele kick this month, so how could I leave out the contributions of hapa-haole songwriting? Hapa-haole is a Hawaiian term meaning mixed blood, usually Hawaiian heritage mixed with something else (usually Asian or mainlander). And it is an appropriate term for this type of music, which was most prevalent during the first half of the 20th century.

Hapa-haole music has predominantly English lyrics with a few Hawaiian words/names thrown in to make the songs seem more exotic. Hawaiian influence is heard in the melodies, with big interval jumps, but the mainlanders did not stray much from the normal song structure and lyrical clich├ęs of their times.

In my opinion the best music was written before the 1950s, and it is uncanny how you hear the mainland influences of the time, based on when the music was written. For example, early hapa-haole songs have a ragtime feel, while later music progresses through jazz, blues and eventually big band themes.

And there were some prolific composers that wrote a lot of this music, including R. Alex Anderson, Sonny Cunha and Johnny Noble.

But my favorite songwriter from this era is Harry Owens, a vaudeville band leader and former musical director of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel Orchestra. He is most famous for Bing Crosby’s Academy award-winning song “Sweet Leilani”. He wrote hundreds of other hapa-haole songs, many of which are still popular within the ukulele community. Check out “Princess Poopooly” on Youtube sometime. Here is a sample of the lyrics:

The Princess Poopooly has plenty papaya and she loves to give it away. Now all of the neighbors they say: “Oh me-a, oh my-a, you really should try a little piece of the Princess Poopooly’s papaya.”

Now Princess Poopooly’s not truly unruly to pass out papaya each day. For all of the neighbors the say, “She may give the fruit, but she holds on to the root, and so she has the root and the fruit to boot.”

You get the picture, I am sure…

Anyway, things have changed quite a bit since the middle of the last century, and Hawaiian-influenced music is no exception.

Popular Hawaiian since the 1960s has seen influences from many cultures, and blends reggae, rock and folk feels into the genre. The term hapa-haole has fallen by the wayside, and all of this music is now lumped into the category of “contemporary Hawaiian music.”


Monday, May 9, 2011

C.F. Martin Guitar Factory Tour

Good morning!

I would like to start out by saying that I have been more than happy with my Martin acoustic guitars over the years, and am really fond of the D-18V that I currently have. Well, there is a real treat out there if you are a Martin fan, or even just a fan of watching things being built – the Martin factory tour.

C.F. Martin is a legendary name in the guitar world, having built guitars in the United States since 1833. For most of those years, they have produced their guitars in eastern Pennsylvania. Beautiful country, it is.

And you, my friend, can drive out to Nazareth Pennsylvania and tour the factory, and it is no lightweight crummy Jelly Belly factory tour either. You get to smell lacquer and sawdust, and watch true craftsmen at work.

As far as I can tell, Martin does not hire tour guides, and tours are led by their employees who volunteer to lead the tours in addition to their regular work. Our tour leader was super and did a fantastic job of leading our group of 12 through the plant. She was really slick and knew all of the terminology of the guitar parts and did an admirable job of explaining the technology and processes of guitar making to a bunch of laymen.

Each of us was provided with a radio headset so we could hears what she was saying, which came in pretty handy because it is a working factory and there is plenty of noise from the power tools and equipment.

On the tour we went through the custom shop, and then got an overhead view of the automated shop floor where the milling and a lot of the larger cutting and gluing processes take place. From there, we moved on and saw just about everything there was to see.

She led us all around on the shop floor, within touching distance of most of the workstations, and without any pesky Plexiglas in the way. We got to see necks being shaped, braces being glued, sides being bent, and plenty of sanding and polishing. We even got to see frets being seated and dressed and a gnarly machine that automatically drills holes in headstocks all day long.

The only part of the factory that we did not get to see was where they spray finish on the guitars, but I imagine they cannot let a bunch a yahoos such as myself in there to caper about amongst the fumes.

Though it was only an hour long, It was the best factory tour I have been on, and it was totally worth driving out from northern New Jersey for the afternoon.

Oh, and did I mention that the tour is free? Yes, free. And before or after you tour, you can tour the Martin Museum (also free), and buy stuff from their gift shop (not free). You could easily spend an hour or two in the museum. Well, I could, anyway.

Public tour hours are from 11AM to 2:30PM on weekdays, and spaces are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Check their website before planning your trip to make sure the hours have not changed and that the factory will be open.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Picking Out Your Ukulele


I promise to get off the ukulele kick pretty soon. If you want to take up the ukulele, finding the right one might be a bit puzzling, so I thought I would put some information together so you know what you are looking at when you go shopping for one.

And shopping is probably your best bet, as playable ukuleles are pretty cheap, so renting one is probably not the greatest idea. Keep in mind that the ones you buy at Hilo Hattie’s or the ABC store for 10 bucks are not playable.

Most ukuleles have four strings, and that is what you should look for. There are some with 6 strings and others with 8 strings (doubled courses) which really sound neat, but would be frustrating to learn on.

Then comes the decision of which size of ukulele to purchase. There are four common sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Playability, tone and volume will vary a bit depending on which size you choose. I will cover the four sizes in order, from smallest to largest.

The soprano is the original ukulele size, and is sometimes called the "standard ukulele" in Hawaii. These are usually tuned to reentrant G-C-E-A, but there is an alternate D-tuning of A-D-F#-B, which brings out a really sweet Hawaiian tone. This little uke is only about 21 inches long, making a perfect companion for airline travel. No BS – as I write this I am flying across the country with my soprano uke in the overhead bin. The smaller size has a few drawbacks, one being less bass and volume, and the other being a very short scale (13”), so the frets are closer together.

The next size up, the concert ukulele, was first built in the 1920s, and was designed to provide more volume with enhanced bass tones. They are about 23” long, with a 15” scale. These ukes most always use the same C tuning as the soprano models (G-C-E-A), but sometimes player will take the G an octave lower to provide a more full tone.

Short after the concert ukuleles gained popular acceptance, builders began producing tenor models. These are bigger yet, with a 26” overall length and a 17” scale. This is my favorite size to play, with a richer tone, and frets a little bit farther apart. These are often use C tuning like the soprano and concert models, but some players will tune them to D-G-B-E, so they can function more like a baritone uke.

Lastly, in the 1940s the baritone ukulele was introduced. At 30” long these are a lot easier to play with a 19” scale. I have only seen these tuned to D-G-B-E, low to high.

For learning, I would recommend a concert or tenor ukulele. Having the frets a little farther apart helps those of us with larger fingers get around the fingerboard a little better. Beginners might want to stay clear of baritone ukuleles, as the more guitar-like tuning does not provide the same distinctive Hawaiian ukulele tone.

You should also have some knowledge of the different construction material options. Maccaferri made a metric ton of plastic ukuleles after WWII. You do not want one. More affordable ukuleles are usually made of wood laminates (think fancy plywood), while more expensive instruments are constructed of solid hardwoods, such as mahogany or koa/acacia. Whatever you get, do not pick one with a light-colored spruce top. The look is totally wrong for the ukulele, and kills its Hawaiian flavor.

The last part of the equation is whether you want electronics. Most people are satisfied with the acoustic sound, but if you are going to be playing out, you might want to consider buying a ukulele with a pickup. It is a lot easier to plug it into an amp than to mike the instrument properly. BTW, a few uke converts I know who came from the electric guitar side love running it through effects, so the pickup was a good upgrade for them.

You will find reasonable quality ukuleles made of laminate materials for a little under $100. For a solid hardwood uke, you will spend at least a few hundred dollars. For real high-quality instruments you can spend thousands.

Check prices online (Amazon is a good source) and then find a local shop that carries ukuleles. The best shops are the ones that have a large selection of acoustic guitars, as they usually have a staff that is knowledgeable about their ukulele stock. Stay away from Guitar Center or Sam Ash, as you will be hard-pressed to find anybody there that knows dick about ukuleles. Plus, with a smaller shop you will be more likely to get help if you ever have problems, or if you cannot figure out how to replace your strings.

As far cases go, you can probably get by with a soft case for a cheaper ukulele unless you are going to be travelling with it. If you have an expensive uke, or if you are going to be stuffing it in overhead bins, you might want to spend 40 or 50 bucks and get a hard case. Be wary of salesmen and check online prices before buying the case. Sometimes they will give you a great deal on the uke and mark the case up quite a bit to get a little more profit.

I will give you my recommendation for a good starter ukulele in my next blog post.