Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rex and the Bass 2013 Year in Review

Happy New Year!

This wraps up my 4th year of blogging, and Rex and the Bass is something that I still love to write. I appreciate the support of my readers, and I read all of the comments that you post on this site. If nobody looked at these pages, I would lose motivation for this project very quickly.

There were a few milestones this year – I uploaded my 500th post to this blog, and Rex and the Bass surpassed 400,000 hits, with half a million not too far off! Also, I am happy to announce that in addition to Blues Blast Magazine, I am now writing for Chicago Blues Guide. Neither of these gigs would have been possible without the writing experience I have gotten through Rex and the Bass.

Anyway, I thought that listing the top ten most read posts of all times might be interesting for you, so here it is:

1. Fender Jazz Bass Special Re-issue

2. Crystal Castles (2010) Album Review

3. Philip Kubicki Factor Basses

4. Little Dot Mark III Headphone Amplifier Review

5. Memory Lane: Pulp Fiction Soundtrack

6. Apple A1121 iPod Hi-fi

7. 1970s Ibanez Les Paul Custom Guitar Review

8. Honda EU2000i Portable Generator Review

9. Sennheiser HD 201 Headphones Review

10. Simon & Patrick Songsmith Acoustic Guitar Review

I look forward to another year of sharing with you!


Monday, December 30, 2013

MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay Guitar Effects Pedal

Hi there!

I have tried out more delay pedals than I can count over the years, and have only found a few that I like. The digital T-Rex Replica is my all-time favorite, but it costs an arm and a leg, and the MXR M169 Carbon Copy analog delay pedal comes in a close second for a fraction of the price.

MXR is part of the Dunlop Company, which also sells all kinds of stuff, including picks, strings, accessories, and the Cry Baby Wah pedals. Using my unofficial count, there are over 50 different MXR pedals that you can stick on your pedalboard, and generally they are very well regarded.

The Carbon Copy is one of the more simple delay pedals that you will run into, and there are only three knobs (Regen, Mix, and Delay) and a modulation ON/OFF switch on its tiny chassis. Regen controls the amount of delay repeats, Mix controls the wet signal level, and Delay sets the delay time. The MOD switch controls the up and down pitch shift of the delayed signal, and this is adjustable for rate and duration internally (screwdriver required). It does not say this in any of the literature, but it appears that the lettering for these controls actually glows in the dark a bit. Between this and the nice bright LEDs, it is ready for the stage!

There are also the expected footswitch, input and output jacks, and a jack for a power supply. By the way, the footswitch provides a true hard-wired bypass, in case you were wondering. If you choose to go the 9-volt battery route, you will have to pop the back off to change it periodically. This is not terribly convenient.

As I said earlier, this is an analog pedal, and with its bucket brigade technology it can provide up to 600ms of delay (0.6 seconds for us non-math types). This is obviously less than what you can get from a digital delay, but it makes up for this with an awesomely warm tone and natural decay without undue muddiness. I was able to get a lot of really useful sounds and tones from this pedal when used with either a bass or guitar, though none of them had the crisp hi-fi character that you can get from a digital pedal. The MOD switch adds a notable depth to the tone, so you can try to emulate your favorite prog rock sounds.

I found that it is good for blues and country, but I found that it shined the most when used with a Stratocaster for straightforward rock or funk with my Precision Bass. It is a blessing to have such simple controls, and changes on the fly are very easy.

The Carbon Copy has a quality feel to it, and the pots and switches do not feel like they are going to break any time soon. I am amazed that they could cram so much goodness into a normal-sized pedal, so it leaves plenty of room for other stuff on the pedalboard. The true bypass switching is exactly what they say it is – the signal comes out just as clean as when it went in. In my usage I found no added noise from this unit and the Replica would be equally at home on the stage or in the studio.

The MXR M169 Carbon Copy delay pedal is a winner, and you are not going to find a better analog pedal for the money. These pedals have a list price of $254.61, and street price of $149.99. Check one out if you get a chance.


Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 Kala KA-ASAC-T Tenor Ukulele Review


My dad recently sent his ukulele to my aunt so she would have an instrument to play again, as years ago she gave her uke to a friend. I found him a new uke, a Kala KA-ASAC-T, and it has turned out to be a fantastic instrument.

The KA-ASAC-T is a tenor ukulele that is part of Kala’s solid acacia series, meaning that it comes with a solid acacia top. The acacia is also called the mimosa or shower tree, and is a close relative of the Hawaiian koa tree. This is a handsome wood, and provides a nice tone an instrument’s sound. The top has herringbone purfling and is bound with strips of rosewood (the back is bound too). The back and sides are made of lacewood.

Mahogany is used for the neck, and Kala uses rosewood for the fretboard and bridge, and ebony for the nut and saddle. There is some nice detail work here, with customer mother of pearl fretboard inlays and a laminated headstock that makes the beveled slots for the tuners look fabulous. The tuners are geared units from Grover, and they are really neat looking pieces.

The build quality of this uke is good, and all 19 of the silver nickel frets have nice smooth edges. The binding, purfling and fretboard inlays are also well done, and with its flawless satin matte finish, it is quite attractive.

This one came set-up with premium Aquila Nylgut strings, and it plays very smoothly with no buzzing or other problems. It has a sweet and mellow tone, and I really cannot think of anything bad to say about it. This thing only weighs 1 pound, 3 ounces, and it would be a nice travelling companion!

If you like the looks of this but need another size, Kala also sells this uke in soprano and concert versions, but you will not get the slotted headstock or cool geared tuners.

As it is a quality instrument, the Kala KA-ASAC-T is a bit more expensive than your basic starter ukulele, and it has a list price of $519.99 and a street price of around $364 (case not included). But it plays well, sounds good, and it looks nice so it is worth every penny. My dad certainly loves his!


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Kris Lager Band: Swagadocious Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the April 25, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Kris Lager Band – Swagadocious

Self Release


15 tracks / 1:07:41

Having spent a few of my formative years in the Midwest, I would never think of the state of Nebraska as being terribly hip or funky, and in Oklahoma we certainly had plenty of Nebraska jokes. But the Kris Lager Band comes out of the Cornhusker State with a heavy load of blues funk to blow my preconceptions right out of the water. Their fifth studio release, Swagadocious, is a huge album that is full of high-energy blues-based funk and boogie.

The Kris Lager Band has spent the last ten years touring around the Midwest, and countless gigs have enabled them to not only master their instruments and stagecraft, but to find their own sound. Kris Lager heads up the crew with his scorching guitars and solid vocals. Jeremiah Weir plays the keyboards, Brandon Hiller takes care of the bass parts, and John Fairchild handles the drums and takes on some of the vocal and lap steel chores. The band also mixes horns in on five of the tracks to keep things interesting; it certainly helps take this album to places they have not been before.

If you buy Swagadocious you will get your money’s worth, as there is an hour and seven minutes of quality music stuffed into this package. This includes fifteen original tracks, and Lager gets writing credit on all of them. Right from the first verse it is evident that Kris is a great songwriter and that this is a band with great chops. “Come to Boogie / Now You Know” starts things out on a fun note with fat organ sounds and raunchy guitar tone over a rock-solid beat. Kris’ voice has a lot of soul and his blistering solo work helps this mid-tempo blues rock tune set the mood for the rest of the album.

The next track, “Sunny Day Souldier,” has a more laid back soul vibe, but the band still brings it on in a big way. Weirs’ Hammond and the tight horn section paint a nice background for Fairchild’s heartfelt vocals and the band’s harmonies. There is also a fun 1960’s-issue call and response, so there is no way to listen to this song and not come away in a good mood.

This segues into my favorite song on Swagadocious, “Daylight Come / There is No Place.” This guitar-driven psychedelic blues rock song has wide variations in tempo, but still maintains a constant tone and focus. Lager is at the top of his game on this one, with mad guitar skills and howling vocals. Hiller and Fairchild do a masterful job of holding things together as the song speeds up and slow down. I will have to sneak this one into the mix for my next DJ gig.

The Kris Lager Band is constantly evolving and trying new things, as you will hear throughout this album. John Fairchild even managed to slip a little rap and scratching into the funk-filled “Get Back,” not in a hardcore East Coast / West Coast manner, but more in the spirit of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. These guys are not afraid to try something different, and I think it worked out well in this case.

The late Magic Slim makes a guest appearance on an impromptu track, “Kris Done Took my Woman.” This 12-bar blues song makes the full use of Slim’s rich voice, and Kris backs off the distortion a little on his guitar to fit into this more traditional framework. This song was well-placed in the mix, as breaking things down to the basics provides a nice pause from the complexity of the other tracks on the album.

The other ten tracks are just as good as these, and the overall consistency is indicative of the maturity of this band as well as their musical and songwriting skills. Swagadocious sounds as big and fabulous as its title and there is plenty to like here; if you are a blues, funk or soul fan and are looking for something a little out of the ordinary you have to check this album out.

If you like their music, I understand that the guys have not let the grass grow under their feet, and are finishing up yet another album, Platte River Runaway. This is being produced by the heavy-hitting bluesman Tab Benoit, so I expect it to be just as good as Swagadocious. The Kris Lager Band is the real deal, and I expect only great things from them!


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Martin MSP4100 SP Light Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings Review


Every now and then I experiment with different acoustic guitar strings, but so far I have always gone back to my favorites, the Martin Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings. Depending upon the instrument I use either the light or medium gauge sets. Today we are going to take a look at the light gauges set (part number MSP4100) that I use on my old Takamine dreadnought.

The light set includes the following gauges: 0.012, 0.016, 0.025, 0.032, 0.042 and 0.054. They have a high-quality steel core with a bronze coating, which is a great combination. The steel helps keep the strings from breaking (I cannot remember the last time I broke a Martin string), and the bronze helps the strings sound brighter for a longer period of time. Plus the bronze color looks really snazzy!

After installing a set of these strings it takes an hour of two of playing to get them to over their initial overly bright and crisp tone. They do not stretch very much, and once they settle in they have a beautifully even and sweet tone across all of the strings. This tone translates well for both recording and live performances.

The tone of these Martin strings holds up for a surprisingly long time. I play every day, and end up changing them out about once per month. As I said earlier, I never break these strings, even though I change to different tunings fairly often.

Some of my friends swear by the coated Elixir strings, and they do hold their tone around twice as long as the Martin strings, but they also cost twice as much. Plus I do not care for the feel of the Elixirs, and their tone does not fit in with my style of playing. Don’t get me wrong, Elixirs are very nice, but the Martins just work better for me.

Martin makes their Phosphor Bronze strings in Mexico, and right out of the package I have never had a bad string from them. But I have to point out that the one thing I do not care for is their packaging. The strings come in paper envelopes inside a cardboard box. I would prefer that they were in an airtight package, as I never know how long these strings have been sitting around at the store, and I believe that exposure to air and moisture degrades string performance over time.

Though the Martin MSP4100 Phosphor Bronze Light Acoustic Strings have a rather high list price of $16.79, you will find that the street price is about $5.50 per pack, which is comparable to other makers’ wares. They sound great and hold up well, so if you do not currently use them you should give them a try.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2006 MusicMan SUB 5 Bass Review


Over the past few months we have been looking at a few of the Musicman SUB instruments that I have owned over the years, and here is another one, 2006 Musicman SUB 5 bass guitar.

Back in 2003, the Ernie Ball company wanted to provide a lower-cost alternative to their admittedly expensive guitars and basses; the Musicman SUB line of instruments came from this idea. These instruments were built in the same San Luis Obispo factory as their other wares, but with features that made them more affordable. This included cheaper body woods and hardware, as well as textured finishes that required less labor and no polishing to complete. You may notice that it does not say “Ernie Ball” anywhere on this bass...

The SUB 5 was their take on the iconic Stingray 5 bass, which is one of the best-selling 5-strings of all time. This one has a non-contoured poplar body that is finished in textured Cinnamon, which was not a common color. It is a fascinatingly iridescent finish with bits of metal flake thrown in; in different lights it can look brown, gold or green. Many of the SUB instruments came with lame faux diamond plate pickguards, but the later ones came with a black plastic guard (like this one). Note that the SUB 5 got a pickguard that is shaped more like the Stingray 4 pickguard. I have never been a fan of the Stingray 5 guard, so I think this is an improvement.

The neck is maple (painted matte black) with a 11-inch radius rosewood fretboard and 21 high-profile, wide frets. This is a 34-inch scale instrument, and the neck is 1 3/4-inches wide at the compensated plastic nut (early SUB basses did not get the compensated nut). Just like their Ernie Ball brethren, the neck on SUB basses is attached to the body with six bolts and they get the usual truss rod wheel for easy adjustments.

The hardware is a bit cheaper than what is found on the Ernie Ball basses. The chrome-plated open gear tuners are not Schaller units, and thought he bridge is similar it seems a bit cheaper. They had to get the price down somehow, you know.

The electronics package is very Stingray 5-like, which is a good thing, especially if you are a country guy or gal. These basses came with a single Musicman humbucker that had a volume control and a 2-band EQ. I know they offered the 4-string basses in either active or passive configurations, and I heard rumors that the SUB 5 had the same option, but I never saw a passive one. Needless to say, this one was active.

And this was really a great bass, regardless of how much it cost (which wasn’t very much, really). The pickup was gnarly, and it had that distinctive thick Stingray growl that is perfect for rock. Though the hardware was not quite as good as Musicman’s higher-priced models, I never noticed any problems with sustain or tuner slippage.

The craftsmanship was what I expected to see coming out of San Luis Obispo – the neck pocket was tight and the frets were very well done, with nicely finished edges and a level fretboard. It weighed a bee’s dick over 10 pounds, and it balanced nicely on a strap. The non-contoured body bugged me a bit as I was used to contoured Stingrays by the time I got my grubby mitts on of one of these.

This was a very nice playing bass, but I am just not a 5-string guy, so it did not stick around for very long.

The MusicMan SUB 5 basses were made from 2003 to 2006, and they were the cheapest American-made 5-strings on the market with a list price of a little over $1000 and a street price of around $700 or so. On today’s used market they sell for about $400 or $500, which is still a smoking deal for a solid bass.


Ray Price: January 12, 1926 to December 16, 2013

The music world lost a legend yesterday.

Rest in peace, Mr. Price.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Long Beach Jazz Angels


I recently had the opportunity to check out a free show that the Los Angeles Philharmonic put on as part of their Neighborhood Concert series, and on the bill was a group I had never heard of before, the Long Beach Jazz Angels. I liked what I saw, so I thought I would look into them a bit more, and give them a shout-out on my blog.

The Jazz Angels is a program based out of Long Beach, California that lets kids get involved in music performance outside of the usual school setting. Their mission statement is as follows: “The Jazz Angels creates an environment for the youth of greater Long Beach to develop self-confidence and leadership skills while learning, playing and preserving jazz through professional music mentoring. These skills and experiences transcend the musical feeling and impact all areas of the young musician’s personal growth.”

These kids have a wonderful opportunity to learn and play alongside profession musicians, and the group I had saw included an instructor on the double bass, and youth on the drums, keyboards, sax and trumpet. The organization has the music arranged specifically for its ensembles, and in this case they got to play along with the LA Phil on a couple of numbers. What a tremendous moment in time for these kids!

There are a few different ways for youth to participate. There are ongoing summer, winter, fall, and spring programs, each of which has eight rehearsals and at least two performances. These sessions cost around $250, and needs-based scholarships are available. They also have special programs, such as the recent A LOT initiative, which was funded by grants from the Arts Council for Long Beach and the NEA. This program involved twenty youth (ages 10 to 14), and included free concerts in September and October.

The Jazz Angels is a neat organization that is helping preserve a truly American art form while giving our youth a chance to grow musically and contribute to our community. If you have a kid (or are a kid) in Long Beach or its surrounding communities you really ought to look into their programs and see if they interest you.

You can get more information about the group, download an application or make a donation to their cause at www.jazzangel.org

Please check it out!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Memory Lane: 1985 Westone The Rail Bass Review


Back in the 1980s, the Steinberger L-series basses were quite chic, but not cheap, so a few makers got on the bandwagon and produced their own small-bodies headless basses. The 1985 Westone rail bass we are looking at today is one of these, but with a few twists.

If you have not heard of Westone before, 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.

In 1984 Westone got on the headless bass bandwagon and over time they introduced a range of instruments, including a full-bodied model (the Super Headless), a small-body model (the Quantum) and The Rail.

The Rail is one of the more bizarre-looking basses you will ever see, but everything about it is purely functional. It was designed around the idea of using a pickup that can be re-positioned so many different kinds of tone can be attained. This is similar in concept to the Dan Armstrong basses of the late 1960s. In this case, pickup movement was achieved by mounting it to two steel rails so it could be moved at will.

Unlike Steinbergers, no exotic materials were used to construct these instruments. The neck and body pieces are made of maple, and rosewood is used for the fretboard. The center piece where the passive humbucker pickup is mounted also contains all of the electronics, which consist of an output jack and a volume control. They figured that no tone control was needed as the pickup can be moved. There is an extra knob on top to lock the pickup into place. There were available in red, white or black, and all of them had black paint on the back of the neck.

The tuners and bridge are separate pieces, which simplifies things a bit from the Steinberger system. The bridge is easily adjustable, and the tuners work surprisingly well for a budget instrument. In true 1980s style, all of the hardware is finished in black.

Looking at The Rail Bass years later, I find that they are holding up pretty well. The necks do not seem to twist up, and I have never seen a broken tuner assembly. The frets on this one are still good, and it can be adjusted for a nice low action. By the way, when was the last time you saw red fret marker dots?

Playing these basses is not super-fun though. I like the shorter scale length (32 ¼-inches) and the pickup can indeed get oodles of different sound depending on where you put it, but ergonomically The Rail is a challenge. I could never get a comfortable right hand position, but maybe it will be just your cup of tea. I would like to try one of their Quantum basses and see if it is a better fit.

Westone’s The Rail Bass was not too expensive when it came out, with a list price of $499, which included a gig bag. They only made these basses for two or three years, but their rarity does not lead to a premium price on the used market. I see them sell for around $500 when they come up on eBay. If you ever see one, give it a try and see what you think!


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Nick and the Overols Telegraph Taboo Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the March 21, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Nick and the Ovorols – Telegraph Taboo

Self Release


10 tracks / 46:09

Some guitarists spend their entire lives searching for the perfect tone, but it sounds like Chicago’s Nick Peraino hit the mark early and then some. On Nick and the Overols’ debut studio CD, Telegraph Taboo, he lays down some of the heaviest hitting blues rock tones I have ever heard. Who would ever guess that he started out as a jazz musician?

Nick is a Yankee that moved to the windy city in the late 1990s so he could study jazz guitar at DePaul University and to be closer to the Mecca of blues music. After college he toured the Midwest with his own band and worked as a sideman around town. He took the role of frontman again when he formed Nick and the Overols in 2011, and their music is not jazzy at all! Nick provides the guitar, bass and other stringed instrument parts on this album, and he is joined by Lance Lewis on drums, Marcin Fahmy on keyboards and Honeesoul on backing vocals. Peraino produced Telegraph Taboo and wrote all of the tracks, with Lewis having co-writing credit on the first song.

And the first song is one raw piece of electric blues. “Take the V Train” uses a guitar pattern that repeats and then layers over a heavy ride cymbal and kick drum with Lewis hammering out a basic bass part. Despite the great guitar sounds, Nick’s voice is the star here. He comes off like a harder-edged Paul Rodgers, which is a good thing. The lyrics are simple with no frills, which is something you will find throughout the album.

After the first track, things turn up a notch. “Chitown Via Greyhound” has a couple of false starts, almost like he is trying to figure out the best way to approach the song, and then it just takes off like a bat out of hell. For this one Peraino uses heavily distorted guitars with a neat slide solo overlay. Lewis is back on the drums for this track and he lays down a serious beat. This song segues into the slow rolling “Heed the Words I Say” which has a slightly funkier vibe due to the inclusion of Fahmy’s B3.

“Honey Please” is a standout track, with a bit more of a modern sound. It is upbeat with thumpy bass and lots of toms and kick drum. Peraino tortures his voice as he strings together an impressive string of musical clichés. His guitars are all over the place and he has some truly awesome solos that battle with each other. Then “Mojo A Go Go” brings the soul and funk out with some wacky distorted keyboard parts. Though the material is all blues-based, Nick and the Ovorols manage to come up with a lot of different sounds and tones, so things never get into a rut.

The vocals are overpowered by the music in the slow-burning “Hey, Mr. President” to the point where I had a hard time understanding the words. This is fine with me as I do not like to mix my music with politics. After this song the album takes a turn and we are treated to a neat ballad, “Try Me,” which is the longest track on Telegraph Taboo, coming in at 7 ½ minutes. In this song Nick shows just how pretty he can sing, and his voice works so well with Honeesoul’s. Fahmy’s organ work is very tasteful, and Peraino’s guitars have a lot of neat textures in this tune, with a good mixture of clean and reverb layers. This is my favorite track on the album as it is just so well crafted. The mood becomes even more subdued with “Day to Day,” a bare bones ballad. The drums are left out as Nick experiments with delay-soaked acoustic guitar and some edgy effects. He also throws a little accordion into the mix, which adds nicely to the unique sound of this track.

The band picks up the tempo and brightens the mood with the soulful “Half of Two” as Honeesoul returns. And to close out the album, Nick gives us “Soundtrack to Life” which a short yet mournful guitar-only a capella tune.

Telegraph Taboo was an ambitious undertaking, and Nick and the Overols were up to the task. This is a collection of twelve very good original songs, and if you like hard-hitting electric blues this will be just the ticket for you. Check it out if you get a chance -- you will be glad you did!


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Fender Rumble 350 2x10 Bass Combo Amplifier Review


Things have changed a lot in the amplification world since I bought my first bass combo, a Peavey TNT 150. Technology and construction have improved so that these amps are more efficient and powerful, not to mention lighter, than ever before. This holds even for entry-level units, such as the Fender Rumble 350 2x10 bass combo amplifier that we are looking at today.

The Rumble 350 combo not terribly huge, measuring 25” tall by 23” wide by 14” deep. It is covered in black vinyl with a metal grille, and it weighs in at around 65 pounds – so much for that stuff I was saying about new amps being lightweight. It does include removable casters, which are a godsend until you get to that first staircase. There are spring-loaded handles for when it comes time to tackle that staircase or when you are loading it into the back of your mom’s minivan.

As you probably guessed from the name, this is a 350-watt amp (at 8 Ohms). This is a solid-state unit, and it has a variable-speed fan to keep it cool. The power is output through two 10-inch Fender Special Design speakers (whatever that means) and a piezo horn, which can be switched off.

The front control panel has plenty going on. Only one input is provided, and it has a -6dB pad switch. There is a switchable overdrive section with a gain control and a blend knob that mixes the clean and the overdriven signals. Tone shapers include two preset switches (Punch and Scoop) as well as a three band EQ with a semi-parametric mid control (level and frequency).

There are a few extras, too, including an effects loop, A pair of AUX IN RCA jacks, a ¼-inch headphone out, the footswitch jack, and an XLR line out with a ground lift switch. There is also the horn ON/OFF switch and the power switch (on the front!). I really like that they included the RCA jacks and headphone jack, as it is sometimes nice to plug in a CD or MP3 player and practice silently.

Fender is bucking current trends, as there is not much to be found on the back except for an IEC power cable socket. Surprisingly, there are no speaker outs.

I tried out the Rumble350 with a few different basses with vastly different outputs, including a passive Precision Bass, a Sadowsky vintage P, and a Musicman Bongo 4H. Without overdrive, the amp did not color the tone of the instruments, and I had no complaints at all. The sound had a warm character to it, and this would be a good amp for classic rock or blues.

The two shaping presets are a bit of a mystery to me. I tried them out with a variety of playing styles, including the hated popping and slapping, and could not get comfortable with the tone it produced. I had a lot better luck using the EQ knobs to get to where I needed to be.

Well, I do not usually use overdriven sounds, but I tried out those controls, and I liked having the option of turning the function on or off with a footswitch. It worked reasonably well on the Fender and the Sadowsky. All bets were off when I plugged in the Bongo as its 18-volt preamp distorted the crap out of this thing, and not in a good way (even with the pad switch pressed). It would probably be acceptable for harder rock or metal, as long as you do not need too much volume from the combo itself.

All of this is with the volume set at less than 50%. Up to this point the amp played very loud, which would certainly be enough for a small club, or to hear yourself onstage if you are running the bass through the PA too. With or without the overdrive, at over 50% the speakers started to fart out, and there was not more usable volume to be found. It is a shame that there are no extra speaker outputs…

The Fender Rumble 350 2x10 bass combo is a loud enough for small to medium gigs, and though its tone is not the greatest, it will get the job done if you are not too picky. If you look at Fender’s bass amp offerings there are not many choices, so they really need to step up their game if this is the best they can come up with. This amp has a list price of $649, and a street price of $499. For sure you should try it out BEFORE buying.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Epiphone Thunderbird Classic-IV Pro Bass Review

Hi there!

Bass players often joke around about Gibson not making basses, and though I am certainly not fond of their Les Paul or SG basses, I think their old Ripper and Grabber basses are pretty cool. Not to mention their big gun, the Thunderbird. Today we are looking at a very good substitute that is sold by Epiphone, the Thunderbird Classic-IV Pro.

The original Gibson Thunderbird was a refreshing change of pace when it was introduced in 1963. It had a bizarre reverse body profile and the headstock turned the wrong way at the end, courtesy of automobile designer Ray Dietrich. It also got a super-solid neck-thru construction and a tone that Fender could not offer. It caught on with a few band over the years, most notably, the Who, Cheap Trick, Lynyrd Skynyrd, not to mention its most ardent ambassador, Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue.

Fast forward four decades, and you will find that Epiphone introduced their own imported version of the Thunderbird, and it was immediately panned, and for good reason. It had a bolt-on neck, was festooned with cheap-ass hardware, and it played and sounded like crap. However, it was really cheap, coming in at around $300 (about a fifth the price of the American-made Gibson model).

Well, Epiphone still sells that chunk, but they have since introduced a $400 Pro-IV and the $500 Classic IV-pro I am reviewing here. The Classic IV-Pro is a completely different animal, and could be a bass worth buying if you can hang with the eccentricities of owning a T-bird bass.

From the first glance you have to agree that they did a very good job of following the original visual theme. Epiphone went all the way with the wood, going for mahogany wings on either side of the seven-ply mahogany and walnut thru-neck. It retains the original thin body wings that step up to the width of the neck, which is a clever weight-cutting feature. Rosewood is used for the fretboard which is unremarkable until you consider that if you buy a new Gibson Les Paul you will get a maple fretboard that is dyed to look like rosewood. For $2000 more. This one is finished in Vintage Sunburst, which is the only color I like on this body style. Alpine White is also available, but I will make fun of you if you buy one.

That seven-ply neck has a 34-inch scale (rare for a Gibson bass) and it is a skinny 1.5-inches wide at the nut. It has a 60’s profile on the back and a 12-inch radius across the fretboard. They sunk some cute pearloid dot markers into that fretboard, and pressed 20 medium jumbo nickel/silver frets into it. There is no binding on the neck (or the body, for that matter). Hidden on top of the headstock are the sealed gear tuners, which are finished in black. This is a departure from the original shiny open-geared tuners of the originals, but the current Gibson T-birds use black hardware too.

Moving down to the body you will find that the three-point flush-mount bridge has the same finish. The bridge seems solid enough and is adjustable in every possible axis, allowing a multitude of set-up possibilities. The black hardware bugs me a bit, but it is not a deal-breaker. The truss rod cover has the Epiphone logo, and it would probably not be hard to find one that says Gibson if you want to fool your audience. Thankfully they went with iconic pickguard shape, complete with the bird outline on it.

The electronics are very good, with two potted Gibson ceramic magnet humbuckers. They are wired through two volume controls and a master tone control, which are in a tight line and set right next to the G string.

I have always liked the look of the Thunderbird, and Epiphone did a wonderful job of catch the vibe of the original. If you have not played one of these before it is kind of a trip, because the neck feels like it is a mile long. This results in some neck dive, which is somewhat ameliorated by the lightweight tuners. Thought the stepped body profile may look a little odd, I do not notice it when playing, and it certainly does cut weight as this bass comes in around 9 pounds, 2 ounces.

The neck on this one is nice and thin and its rounded back profile is very comfy. Epiphone’s Indonesian workers made sure that the frets are level with nice ends, which is something that the Gibson factory cannot seem to accomplish with their high-dollar Les Pauls. This bass showed up with good intonation and a medium action height. It is a good player, for sure.

The sound is very similar to the Gibson Thunderbird. This bass was originally introduced to combat the Fender Jazz Bass, and though the controls are the same the humbuckers are less subtle, which gives this instrument a different character. The output is more powerful and experimenting with different types of amps and gain settings will result in most any sort of tone you could possibly hope for. And though can play clean and distinctive tones, where this bass naturally shines is in super fat and overdriven circumstances. It is a dreamy rock bass, and you can see why louder bands prefer its tone.

So, for $499 (list price $832) you get a bass that is just as good as its Gibson counterpart for a thousand bucks less. This includes Epiphone’s limited lifetime warranty, but no case. Keep in mind that most cases will not fit the T-bird, so you will want to pony up for the Epiphone hard case, which runs about $98 (list price $148).

If you like the looks of the Thunderbird and can handle the ergonomics, the Epiphone Thunderbird Classic-IV Pro bass is the only one to consider. Check one out!


Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Magic Johnson Call Me Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the February 28, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Black Magic Johnson – Call Me

Self Release


12 tracks / 54:21

I think there is a Springfield in almost every state in the United States, but the one closest to Chicago is the one that gets my attention as there is a lot of great music that comes out of that city. Black Magic Johnson is no exception, having honed their skills by putting in a lot of hours gigging around the area. Despite the band’s busy schedule, they have managed to take the time to put together their newest CD, Call Me.

Black Magic Johnson is led by Reggie Britton, who wrote all twelve of the songs on Call Me and performed the lead vocals as well as the drum and harmonica parts. He is joined on this album by Alexis Rogers and Dan Grover on guitars (and background vocals) while Willie Chrismon and Bob Hagler split the bass duties, and Suit & Tie Guy worked the keyboards. By the way, Suit & Tie guy has to be one of the best musician names I have ever run into.

The band’s songs are mixture of genres that includes rhythm and blues, rock, soul and even a little country and gospel thrown in for good measure. But all of it is good-times music with lots of vocal harmonies and a heavy emphasis on guitars, which Rogers and Grover do an admirable job with. You will hear all of this on the first track, “Crazy About You Baby,” which has a nice Chicago blues flavor. This upbeat song is fun with simple lyrics and a jaunty syncopated rhythm guitar that pops along with the snare.

The funky “Loving Ways” is the next one in line, and Britton shows that his songwriting is versatile, as the lyrics are a bit more complicated. Sticking to the old standby relationship subject, he paints a picture of a saint of a woman using some really fun rhymes. The guitars are scorching on this tune, and everything comes off a little distorted. Then the band switches gears quickly with the slow and soulful “Standing By Me” which makes liberal use of acoustic guitars and Suit & Tie Guy’s Hammond.

My favorite song on this album is “Water from a Rock” a rollicking eight-bar blues tune that is built on the foundation of a doubled rhythm guitar and bass line. The music is good, but the lyrics are what make this stuff real. This is pure wit as Britton addresses the unrealistic expectations of another: “You want water from a rock / and blood from a turnip, baby / and sunlight under your shade tree.” Too true!

Most of the songs on Call Me are the usual four to five minutes, but they squeezed a couple of longer ones in too. The risqué (at times) “She’s Got Everything” clocks in at almost eight minutes, not because they threw in a couple of extra guitar solos, but because there were just a ton of things they wanted to say and that was how long it took to get the job done. The slow-burning blues song “Love So Cold” is a tick over 10 minutes. This song does not shortchange the guitar parts at all, and in fact it is so heavy that it would fit in perfectly with the blues rock of Led Zeppelin’s first album.

Suit & Tie Guy brings a few different keyboard sounds to Call Me, most noticeably the distorted synthesizers on “Blues Traveler” and his fine organ work on “All Tore Up,” which are both placed near the end of the CD. Then, after spending eleven tracks proving what good musicians they are, the band chose to end the album with a short a capella soul number, “Thank You Baby.” This is really the only opportunity to hear their voices without any coloration or distraction from the instruments, and with their sweet harmonization it turned out really nicely.

Black Magic Johnson created a very good album with Call Me, and I am impressed that they put together a collection of a dozen solid tracks without having to use any cover tunes. The lyrics and score are consistent, and there is a not a clunker in the bunch. You can find them gigging around the Springfield, Illinois area on most weekends, so be sure to check them out if you get a chance -- I am sure you will have a great time!


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tech 21 SansAmp Para Driver Di Instrument Preamp Pedal Review

I have plenty of DI pedals, and mostly I prefer ones that provide a clean signal, but lately I have been messing around with DI boxes that can also shape my sound, and the Tech 21 Para Driver Pedal gets pretty close to a tube tone.

Tech 21 has been around since 1989, when a guitarist/electronics guru developed the first SansAmp tube amplifier emulator. In the years since they have introduced a wide array of products, including effect pedals, midi controllers and even a line of amplifiers. Their products are well-regarded by musicians, they manufacture stuff in the US, and they have very good customer service.

The Para Driver DI is housed in a smart-looking matte finished black case. It measures about 4.5 by 3.5 by 1.5 inches, and it weighs around ¾ of a pound. On top are the footswitch and five knobs: Level, Drive, 3 EQ knobs, and a mid shift knob. You will also find a blend switch, line/instrument switches the XLR and 1/4 outs, and a phantom power switch. On the right side is the ¼-inch input, and on left side are the ¼-inch and XLR outs.

This SansAmp runs on a 9-volt battery, or you can buy an adaptor to plug it into a wall. If it is plugged into a mixing console, you can ditch your AC adaptor and run it off the board’s phantom power (that is what the phantom power switch is for). Neat!

Like the originals, the SansAmp Para Driver DI plays the role of a preamp that sounds like a mic’d speaker cabinet that is being driven by a tube amplifier, using no real tubes and 100% analog circuitry. After plugging it into my Genz Shuttle, I pulled out the user manual and messed around with their recommended sample settings. The active tone controls allow +/- 12 dB of boost or cut. With my trust P Bass it took no time at all to get a solid SVT, Jaco or upright bass tone. This thing gets very close and many of the sounds I got out of it were very useful.

This Tech 21 unit was not designed just for bass though, so I also took the opportunity to put my Martin and Stratocaster through it. I used the blend control to take some of the weirdness out of the piezo on my acoustic, and I got some unholy gnarly rock sounds when driven hard with my Fender. This is really a versatile pedal, and I did not find any of my instruments that it would not work well with.

As a direct box, the Para Driver DI delivers the goods too. With the blend switched off and the EQ set flat it delivers a pure tone from my guitars and basses to the mixing console. The equalizer is still functional, so the tone can still be fine-tuned by the user and the switchable mid selections can really help a bassman find his or her sweet spot.

The Tech 21 SansAmp Para Driver Preamp Pedal is a great unit, and if you like the tone it will sell itself. It has a list price of $275, and street price around $200; if you buy a new one it comes with a one year limited warranty. Check one out for yourself, and see if it is what you are looking for.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

La Patrie Collection Acoustic Guitar Review


Today we are looking at a very nice La Patrie Collection model classical-style acoustic guitar, which is their top-of the line instrument. La Patrie is an offshoot of the Godin family of guitars and their instruments are made in La Patrie, Quebec. I think Canada may have more luthiers than hockey players. Maybe not.

I first heard of La Patrie guitars when I was doing some research on a Simon & Patrick acoustic guitar (also made by Godin), and I noticed that this the parent company’ line of classical guitars. Since then I have played their Presentation model (one step from the top), and figured that I had better compare it to the Collection model.

The Collection is a smart-looking guitar, with a solid spruce top that supposedly comes from trees that average 800 years old. When I think about how old those trees are, I feel pretty bad, but maybe they collect the wood from trees that are already dead. Anyway, the back and side are formed from very nice solid Indian rosewood, and there is a simple white binding around the top and back. The body is finished in a semi-gloss lacquer, and Godin makes it a point to say that it is very thin to allow the top to vibrate more freely and to allow the wood to breathe and age better. More on this later…

The neck is made of satin-finished Honduras mahogany with a rosewood fretboard. There are 19 medium frets, and they are finished well with nice edges. The neck maintains the traditional classical guitar string spacing and nut width of (2 3/32 inches), but it has a lot thinner profile than usual. This leads to a huge deviance from traditional construction, in that the neck employs a dual-action truss rod. More on this later, too…

The rest of the specifications list contains no bad surprises either. The black and gold lyre tuners are nice quality and hold well. La Patrie also equipped it with a first-rate Tusq (by Graphtech) synthetic bone nut and bridge saddles, and a rosewood bridge. I mentioned earlier that the frets are good, and the overall construction is very nice too. The finish is pretty and the braces are nicely cut and glued, and I cannot find a visible flaw on this instrument.

The last pieces of the puzzle are how the Collection plays, and how it sounds, and the results are mixed.

I like the feel of the instrument. For a classical guitar it is a little heavier than I expected, coming in at almost 5 pounds, but it is nicely balanced. The thinner profile neck is very comfortable, making it feel a lot more easily (king of like a steel-string acoustic). The action is a tad high, but I was able to get around the fretboard with no troubles or buzzing.

Unfortunately, tone is where this La Patrie guitar falls short. It has a muffled sound, like the top is not able to resonate freely. Despite the company’s assertions that they apply a super thin layer of lacquer, this thing seems like it has a ton of finish on it. The Presentation model I played had a lot thinner finish, and a lot better sound. Also, I have to wonder if the thinner neck is giving less of the juicy classical guitar sound that I expected. Either way, this guitar is just not working for me, and I am disappointed that their top of the line model does not sound as good as their cheaper instruments.

This one might just be a clunker, so I have to recommend that you try before you buy. MSRP on the La Patrie Collection is a mere $825, with a street price of about $695 and I see them on the used market for around 400 bucks. Be careful, my friends!