Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Ernie Ball has to be one of the biggest guitar and bass string manufacturers in the world, but despite their hefty market share they are not resting on their laurels. They keep coming out with new products, and I am a big fan of their coated strings they recently introduced, as well as their adoption of sealed string packaging.
At NAMM this year they introduced a new line of Cobalt-series strings that were supposed to do miraculous things, and I must confess it made my BS meter twitch a little. But I read through their info and was intrigued by the logic behind going to a cobalt alloy string wrapping.
The idea is that the cobalt alloy is more strongly attracted to magnets (as found in pickups) than any other material previously used. Also, this alloy is more resistant to corrosion caused by moisture and sweat. The results are improved output, sustain and clarity. As a bonus, the strings also last longer and are less susceptible to breakage, being stronger than nickel or steel.
These strings are available in the usual popular guitar and bass string set sizes, so I went down to my local Guitar Center and bought a set of the 2733 Cobalt Hybrid Slink Bass Strings for 30 bucks (MSRP of $59.99. This is about 10 buck more than I usually spend, but you have to take chances in life. I brought them home and stripped the standard Hybrid Slinky bass strings from my trusty MusicMan Classic Stingray bass and did not have to change a thing with the action.
These strings really do sound awesome, and certainly do have a bit more output than the regular Hybrid Slinky bass strings I have been using for years on my Stingrays. I didn’t notice much of a change in sustain, but maybe there is something to this cobalt thing.
I have been using these strings for a little over a month (this being my main player), and I have noticed no degradation in tone. I usually change roundwound strings every month or two, but these look like they are going to hold up for a bit longer. I will be sure to provide an update if anything changes.
I think you should try out a set of these for your guitar or bass. They are more expensive than ordinary Ernie Ball strings, but the increased life and performance is worth it.
In the world of guitar effect pedals, there are true legends, and one of them would have to be the Ibanez Tube Screamer overdrive pedals that were introduced back in the early 1980s. These are blues and rock guitar staples, with players like Stevie Ray Vaughan and George Lynch having a fondness for them.
There were a few different models, but my favorite of these would be the TS808, which has spawned many imitators. These have become very collectible (i.e. expensive), but fortunately Ibanez has re-issued them so anybody with a small stack of cash can pick one up. Supposedly this unit uses the same circuitry and electronics as the original version.
The basic purpose of is to simulate the tone of a tube amplifier that is being overdriven, but at more reasonable volume levels.
This Tube Screamer reissue has a sturdy case with the distinctive green finish and square switch of the original. The controls are simple, with three knobs: overdrive, tone and level. Drive is for the level of distortion, tone is a treble cut and level controls the output.
And this Ibanez pedal works very well, providing super strong sustain and mids that really help a guitarist stand out in the mix, but without being a full-blown gnarly distortion pedal. I have found that it really is not going to take the place of a tube amp, but certainly does augment a tube amp’s natural tone.
The price of the Ibanez TS808 Vintage Tube Screamer Reissue is a bit steep, with an MSRP of $257.13 and a street price of $179.99, but it is worth every penny. If you are only going to have one guitar effect pedal, this is the one to get!
Monday, February 27, 2012
Since the 1970s, the Stingray bass has evolved to become one of the best bolt-on neck production basses you can buy. This meant that some of the original features were left behind, and of course some players were unhappy about the changes. In 2009, the Ernie Ball Company gave players the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and offered up the Classic Stingray 4, which has some really neat retro features.
The major differences between the Classic Stingray and the Stingray (which is still available) are: • String-through bridge and body (yay) • Mute kit added to a larger base plate bridge (meh) • Uncompensated nut (boo) • Poly-finish birdseye or flame maple neck(yay) • 7.5-inch neck radius (yay) • 2-band equalizer only (no 3-band available) • Pretty chrome battery compartment cover instead of a more functional plastic battery box • Classic color selections (yay)
Other than these items, these basses are standard MusicMan fare. They have ash bodies with a thick poly finish, and fortunately they stayed with a 6-bolt neck joint instead of going back to a 4-bolt or (gasp) 3-bolt microtilt design.
The necks are beefy with 1 5/8-inch wide nuts and are 34-inch scale with 21 frets. Again, I am glad they use the modern truss rod wheel (now chrome!) instead of the crummy old bullet truss rod ends.
The hardware is first rate, too. The bridge has stainless steel saddles, and standard Schaller BM tuners with tapered posts are installed in the 3+1 headstock configuration. An alnico humbucker rounds out the 2-band electronics package.
And I have been sucked in with the rest of the crowd and love these basses. The 2010 Coral Red one that you see here is a monster of a bass. I swapped out the 0.045 to 0.100 standard strings for some Hybrid Slinkies (0.045 to 0.105) and it is one of the best Stingrays I have ever owned.
Of course it sounds like a Stingray, and can be very edgy or smooth, depending on how it is eq’d and how much the strings are dug into. But the real magic is the neck on this thing.
The 7.5-inch radius fretboard suits my playing style much better, and I prefer the poly finish to the gunstock oil that is found on the standard Stingrays. It feels better to the touch and it cleans up much easier. Win-win.
It is not horribly heavy either, coming in at around 9 ¾ pounds on my digital scale. It is a real peach, and I hope that I can keep this one around for a while.
The price of nostalgia will cost you a bit for this one. A new Classic Stingray 4 has a list price of $2570 and a street price o f $1799, so you had better start saving now.
By the way, there are also Classic Stingray 5 and Classic Sterling models available too, in case the Stingray 4 is not your bag. As long as you do not want a lefty, as they are not selling any of these for southpaws.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Today we are looking at the mate to my Ampeg SVT-CL: a Classic Series SVT-810E bass enclosure. By the way, “bass enclosure” is a euphemism for “speaker cabinet.”
After finally adding an SVT to my collection, I tried a few different speaker combinations before I ended up with the dreaded 810. I tried an Ampeg 410E, but at 8 ohms it was horrible inefficient. I tried the 610HLF, but it was boomy and not as well-focused as the SVT-810E. So I finally bit the bullet and dragged one of these home. My wife had to help me unload it.
I was reluctant to go with the 810 as it is just a monster of a cabinet. It is not just a clever name, it is loaded up with eight 10-inch speakers and comes in at a whopping 140 pounds, which is more than I weighed when I graduated from high school.
The weight is worth it, as there is plenty of quality built into this enclosure. It Is constructed of Baltic birch plywood, which is some of the finest laminate wood I have ever worked with. The whole thing measures 48“ tall by 26” wide by 16” deep. The speakers are paired into four sealed enclosures (infinite baffle design) for a tighter response. Cups fit the feet of your SVT are embedded in the top of the cabinet to prevent the head from vibrating itself onto the floor.
To make it a bit more portable, Ampeg installed two recessed wheels on the back and a tilt-back grab handle, along with a couple of skid rails on the back. It still is not very pleasant to move, though.
The eight speakers each have 2-inch voice coils and 30 ounce magnets. The 810E can handle 800 watts at 4 ohms, with a frequency response of 58Hz to 5kHz. This is more than enough for my SVT-CL, and the color matches too. There are both ¼ inch and Neutrik Speakon jacks on the back, and you can run the cabinet in stereo if you want to, maybe you could stack two SVTs on top….
But, putting all of this aside, the main reason to pick up a SVT-810E is the tone. I bought this one new, and after the speakers broke in I have fallen in love the sound that thing puts out. There is a ton of volume, of course, but it also has very tight lows and mids. It has a very balanced sound and a super smooth response.
It is buttery smooth with enough power to knock down my garage. This is a tough combination to beat, and virtually unchanged since 1969.
For the past few years, these cabinets have been built overseas, but I have not noticed any difference in sound quality or build construction. In fact, I am pretty sure that the older ones did not use the Baltic plywood, as it has not been a popular building material until recently.
The Ampeg SVT-810E bass enclosure is a bit spendy, with a MSRP of $1399.99, and a street price of $999.99, but if you want the full SVT experience, you are going to have to pony up for one.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
ESP is a Japanese guitar maker that has been around since the 1970s, but first started mass-producing guitars and basses in the 1980s. Today we are looking at one of their biggest early success stories, a 400 Series bass.
Looking at this instrument, you can see clearly that it is a Fender Jazz Bass copy, but it is a very good one. It has the traditional Jazz bass body offset waist profile, a 1.5-inch nut and two single-coil Jazz pickups. Not to mention the same pickguard and control cover shapes. The headstock shape is a bit different, probably to avoid lawsuits from Fender.
There are a few divergences from tradition, though. The end of the bolt-on neck is probably the most notable. Though this is a normal 34-inch scale 21 fret neck, the fingerboard extends beyond the end of the neck so it lies on top of the pickguard. This makes the truss rod super-hard to adjust, and I cannot figure out why they did this. If anything, it seems like it limits access to the higher frets.
This one has lost its two ESP LH1300 single-coil pickups over the years, and ended up with a set of EMG active pickups and a pre-amplifier. The preamp and battery are hidden under the control cover, and no extra routing was done to accommodate them. The controls are now volume, pan and stacked treble/bass (I think).
The rest of this 400 Series bass appears to be original. It has a vintage Fender style serrated saddle bridge, and ESP vintage deluxe tuners which still hold well (and are adjustable for tension).
From my previous experience with ESP instruments, I am sure that this bass was originally very well built. But, 20-something year later it is a little hard to tell, as time has taken its toll on this one. The finish shows plenty of gig wear, and the nickel silver frets are also a bit worn. It still plays beautifully, though, with a slim and fast neck, as well as the EMG tone that is always a favorite of mine.
The original ESP 400 Series basses are very hard to find these days, and the condition of this one makes it a bit more affordable. I will be moving it along to a new owner, as I have found a beautiful ESP J-Four, and I have no good reason to keep more than one Jazz Bass around.
If you ever have the chance to pick one of these up, I say go for it. It would be great if ESP re-issued a made in Japan 400 series for the US, but it is not going to happen any time soon. The Yen to dollar situation is grim, making many Japanese built products uncompetitive here.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
I have bought at least 6 copies of Ed Friedland’s Bass Method Book 1 over the years. You see, every time somebody tells me that they want to be a bass player, I give them my copy and I never see it again.
When my boy told me he wanted to learn how to play bass I went to my local Sam Ash music store and bought yet another copy. This is money well spent, in my opinion, and it could not go to a nicer guy.
You see, Ed Friedland’s bass method books are logically organized, and can help a raw beginner learn everything they need to know to get started on the instrument.
Bass Method Book 1 starts at the very beginning, teaching the newbie the names of the bass guitar parts and how to properly hold the instrument. It proceeds through tuning the bass and musical symbols and notation.
From there it teaches the notes within the first five positions, as well as common bass lines, patterns and rhythms. These lessons are interspersed with playing tips and techniques that Ed has learned over the years. You even get a play-along CD -- this stuff is pure gold!
You can find Bass Method Book 1 on Amazon for $5.99, or you can get all 3 volumes in a plastic comb bound version for $15.63. This is a real bargain for the best bass method books you can buy. Of course, if you are in a hurry you can buy Volume 1 with the CD for $9.95 at most any music store in the country.
I only wish I could find a method for guitar that works as well as Ed Friedland’s bass books.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Buenos dias, amigos!
Somehow I made it through 25 years of bass playing without ever owning an Ampeg tube amplifier. You see, I have always had lots of preconceived notions about Ampeg amps: they are heavy, unreliable and require too much maintenance. My opinions have changed, as I did not realize what I was missing out on all of these years, which is pure tube tone.
Today we are looking at a super-clean Ampeg SVT-CL Classic bass amplifier. The CL is a popular current iteration of the original SVT (Super Valve Technology) amplifier that was introduced in 1969. The SVT was the seminal high-powered bass amplifier that was developed for the loud rock concerts of the day.
The SVT-CL is a monstrous all-tube amp with two 12AX7 preamp tubes, two 12AU7 and one 12AX7 driver tubes and six 6550 power tubes. They are spring-mounted in the chassis for shock resistance along with a fan to keep them cool.
This amplifier has two inputs on the front: one normal and one padded (-15dB). You also find power and standby switches on the right side of the front panel; I hate it when the power switch is on the back. The tone controls include bass, mids, treble, an extra five way mid selector, and high/low boost switches. Of course there are gain and volume controls too.
The back of the amplifier has a polarity switch, two bias pots, a ¼-inch slave output, preamp out, power amp in, impedance selector (2ohm/4ohm), a balanced output, two ¼-inch speaker outs and a Speakon out. A panel comes off the back for access to the tube farm.
The SVT Classic puts out 300 watts of pure tube power into either 2 or 4 ohms. This does not sound like much in this day of solid state class D amps that weigh as much as a sandwich and put out 1000 watts of power. But the power ratings are deceptive. When cranking this pure tube power through my Ampeg 810 cabinet, it pushes just as much, if not more, air than my 600 watt Genz Benz amplifier.
One of the usual complaints about the SVT is its back-breaking weight, coming in at around 80 pounds. This is concentrated into a 24” wide enclosure that is 12” high and 13” deep. It is heavy, but the handles are well-positioned, and at least it is not heavy and really bulky, which could make it a total nightmare to move. Besides, that is why carts and dollys were invented.
Another complaint is that these amplifiers require too much maintenance and are unreliable. Although I have not had any problems with mine, I could see this point. Anything with lots of tubes is going to require work to stay performing at its best. It is like maintaining your car, if you keep up with maintenance, it will not crap out on you.
But any of these issues are negligible when you consider the tone that the Ampeg SVT cranks out. You can avoid a lot of searching for the perfect bass sound by trying one of these amplifiers first. I’ve found that my SVT through an 8x10 cabinet provides lots of bass (as expected), but also give super full and warm mids that really cut through the mix. And it accomplishes all of this without tons of work tending the knob farm – the controls are very simple.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love my Genz Benz Shuttle, but it has a more sterile sound when compared to the organic goodness of an all-tube Ampeg. I am addicted to the sound of this thing.
But the best things in life are not free, or even cheap. The Ampeg SVT-CL has a list price of $2379.99 and a street price of $1699.99. You can find them used for around $1000, but pay attention to where they are built. US-made amps have a price premium when compared to the Asian-built models.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Let me start by acknowledging that the JH16 Pros are ridiculously expensive, starting at $1149 (not including options that could drive the price higher) and probably a $100 charge from an audiologist to pour custom ear molds. But, to deep-pocket audiophiles, this is not very much money at all, as they readily spend thousands of dollars on cables and tens of thousands for amplifiers. This is why you will not find “Price” in my list of cons – they are obviously built for a very small audience.
The JH16 Pro in-ear monitors are miraculously constructed; inside each monitor are eight drivers: double dual lows, a single dual mid and a single dual high. To support these there is an integrated 3-way crossover to efficiently move this panoply of drivers.
The specifications are equally impressive, with a quoted frequency response of 10Hz to 20kHz. Input sensitivity is 118dB @ 1mW, and the monitors’ impedance is 18 Ohms. As these are not super high-impedance monitors a headphone amplifier is not necessary, but I tried them out with both solid-state and tube-type headphone amplifiers for this test, and did find noticeable improvements in performance.
After purchasing these monitors, you will need to have an audiologist pour molds of your ears to send in to JH Audio so they can custom build your JH16s. Not only are they a custom fit, you will have a choice of colors, custom artwork ($100 more), engraving and cable lengths. Cables are replaceable, should you happen to damage them or the jack.
A few weeks later, they will ship them to you in a bulletproof Otterbox case along with a nifty tool to scrape the ear wax out of them. When they arrive, make sure they fit well, as you have 30 day warranty against poor fit. But they should fit comfortably and provide you with the expected -26dB of noise isolation.
These JH16 monitors are the clearest I have heard, and are more punchy and dynamic than my Ultimate Ear In-ear Reference Monitors. They reproduce every detail of the original recordings, albeit with less mids than expected, as it seems they have been tuned to provide a fatter bass and brighter treble than the actual source. This makes them perfect for the way modern music is mixed, but also means that they did not perform quite as well (relatively speaking) with the classical and jazz tracks that I played through them. For a live music stage monitor, I do not think you will be able to find anything better than the JH16s.
But these are very minor compared to what you get. The JH Audio JH16 Pro are the best sounding In-ear monitors you can buy, so if you have the means I highly recommend picking some up. For more details or to order, go to http://www.jhaudio.com/
Pros: • Best audio quality and frequency response of any in-ear monitor • Guaranteed custom fit • Replaceable cables
Cons: • Cables tangle easily • Only a 2-year monitor warranty and no cable warranty
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Today we are looking at a fabulous ESP bass, a J Four that was built in Japan during the 1990s. This would be similar to the Japan market Amaze series basses. I have owned a few of these over the years and they are to die for.
This instrument has a wonderful blend of design and styling elements. The body has a jazz bass offset-waist shape, but with sharper horns and deeper cutaways for the virtuoso bassists out there (i.e. not me). The gorgeous ash lumber is sprayed with a layer of trans red that is still in fabulous condition. See the photos for details.
The passive electronics are more traditional jazz bass parts: 2 single coil J pickups and volume/volume/tone controls.
The neck is a peach, with a pretty rosewood fretboard very little fret wear. The ESP inlay at the 12th fret is a classy touch. It is 1 1/2-inches wide at the nut, and I think it is a bone nut. The truss rod adjusts at the heel, and it works well.
The hardware is all heavily chrome-plated and is original to the bass. The bridge is a high mass unit, and I believe that it and the tension-adjustable tuners were made by Gotoh. The knurled control knobs are a nice departure from the usual plastic Fender Jazz bass knobs.
As this bass came from ESP, the overall craftsmanship is impeccable, and the neck is true. The frets are still level and are well-finished on the ends. The pickups have a bit hotter output than the usual Fender Jazz. This is a tremendous rock bass, and quite a looker too.
These 1990s ESP basses are a great value, and can be found for a lot less cash than comparable Fender products. Check one out if you get the chance.
Friday, February 3, 2012
Shure 520 microphones have been the industry standard for harmonica players as far back as I can remember. Their latest version of this classic is the 520DX, which we are looking at here today.
When blues harmonica players started using microphones, they would usually take the head off of an old radio desk microphone, as they were small and easy to hold in their hands while playing the harp. In 1949 Shure introduced their first bullet harmonica microphone, the 520, which came with a controlled magnetic cartridge. This microphone was discontinued and later came back as the 520D, which was essentially the same microphone, but made in Mexico.
Today you can purchase a Mexican-made 520DX, which is a bit different than the originals. It is still green, but there is now a volume control and it uses a dynamic cartridge inside. The tone is about the same as the older models, but output is lower, so you will have to depend more on your amplifier for overdrive/distortion.
The Shure 520DX is small, measuring about 2.5 by 3.25 inches, and it weighs in at a little under a pound. It has a sturdy die-cast body with a distinctive industrial green finish and silver grill. As I said, it has a volume knob, so the user can make quick adjustments (mostly unintentionally) on the fly. There is a built in cable with a ¼-inch connector, so it can be plugged directly into an amplifier.
This dynamic microphone has an omnidirectional polar pattern, and a frequency response of 100 to 5 kHz. The 520DX is a high-impedance unit which reduces its output a little, but I have heard it can be taken apart and switched to a lower impedance. I guess if you are running a really big amp, you might want more output so you can get better distortion at lower volume levels.
In actual use, the 520DX is the perfect shape to cup between the harp and hands, and allows the user to get a good-sized chamber for the warm Chicago-blues tone. It has a distinctive low-fidelity natural distortion, and I have messed around with it a bit for vocals and have gotten some cool tones out of it.
I have a few gripes (don’t I always?), as I do not care for the integrated cable or the volume control. I would rather have an XLR connector on the mike so I can use whatever cable I please, and not be limited by the length or ¼-inch jack of the stock unit. The volume control is not really necessary, and only makes the unit heavier and more expensive. Also, it would be nice if Shure included some sort of case with the 520DX.
But these are minor things, and do not change the fact that this is the best stock harmonica microphone that is available today. The Shure 520DX has a list price of $186.44 and a street price of $119. If you are a harp player or are providing a backline for others, you really should pick up one of these.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
It has been six years since The Little Willies released their eponymous first album, and I have not heard a peep from them since. I figured that they must have split up, but I was wrong – Norah Jones’ side project has come back with For the Good Times, a very strong second release.
The Little Willies is made up of five friends who started to get together in 2003 to play classic country and western fare. These folks were already accomplished musicians, and include Jones on vocals and piano, Richard Julian on vocals and guitars, Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass and drummer Dan Rieser.
This group just clicks when they get together, and they sound like they have been playing together every day for years. Nobody would argue that Norah has an incredible voice, but Julian sings beautifully with her. Jim C is my guitar hero, and the rhythm section is tighter than tight.
For the Good Times takes the country standbys of loneliness and heartache and runs with them at warp speed. These corny old tunes have made many a grown man cry, and they have now found a new audience to bum out. The whole album is cover tunes, with the exception of “Tommy Rockwood”, but these are not a bunch of silky ballads that showcase Norah’s chops -- there is a lot of honky tonk in here.
The inspiration for this album is the murderer’s row of country music writers and performers: Kris Kristofferson, Ralph Stanley, Willie Nelson (their namesake), Scott Wiseman, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lefty Frizzell and Loretta Lynn. And a little Quincy Jones for good measure.
This album kicks off with a bang with a rousing version of Ralph Stanley’s “I Worship You”, which is miserable country romance at its best. And the Kris Kristofferson title cut is a great choice as Kris has truly seen the wild side of life, and defines gritty country to me.
My favorite cut has to be Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” where Norah does a more playful version of the slightly scary original version. She also shines on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, and manages to make the song sound a lot less desperate. Her twangy voice is awfully pretty, too.
Julian bravely covers Willie Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely”, and does a fine job. I would hate to try walking in Willie’s footsteps, as he is a god of country music.
There is more fun to be had with “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves”, “If You’ve Got The Money, Honey, I Got The Time” and Johnny Cash’s “Wide Open Road”. There is a reason these songs are standards, as they have withstood the test of time.
Of course Norah and Julian are not as gritty and nasty as their forefathers, and there is a temptation to compare them, but there is no reason to go there. The Little Willies are a tight and talented band that are celebrating these classic tunes and having a good time.
For the Good Times is another great effort by The Little Willies, and you really should add it to your collection.