Wednesday, August 28, 2013

SKB 1SKB-300 ¾ Size Guitar Hard Case Review


I travel a few dozen times per year for my day job, and to keep my fingers in shape (and to kill the endless hotel hours) I usually take along a guitar on my trips. I used to take a Martin Backpacker, but it is such a miserable chunk of crap, that I eventually found a Little Martin LX which is a lot more pleasurable to play.

The Little Martin is a ¾-sized guitar that comes with a nice padded gig bag that fits in the overhead compartment or front closet on most of the flight I take. Unfortunately, on small regional jets there just is not enough room for it and it has to be gate checked, which makes me really nervous. I did some searching around the internet and ended up with a nice molded hardshell case, the SKB 1SKB-300, which took away a lot of the worry.

The 1SKB-300 is specifically designed for the Martin LX (Little Martin) and Baby Taylor models. It fits a lot of the other ¾-size guitars as well, but it will not fit the Taylor GS Mini. Trust me, I have tried. Generally, it should fit guitars with a lower bout of 12.5 inches, an upper bout of 9.25 inches, a boy length of 16 inches and an over length of 34.75 inches.

This SKB case is made of blow-molded plastic with an extruded aluminum channel that seals the lid to the body of the case. To further protect the guitar there is EPS foam insulation (like in a motorcycle helmet) and some sort of synthetic fuzzy stuff on the inside. Inside you will find a storage cavity that will hold a tuner or a strap (but probably not both) and a key for the typical useless guitar case lock. Outside there are three chrome latches, including one with the aforementioned lock.

When my case arrived, I put my Little Martin in it, and it fit like a glove. The neck was very well supported, and there was no movement at all when the lid is shut. Unfortunately, the lid has never set completely flat, so it needs to be pressed down a bit to get it to latch. This is common with these cases, and I am willing to live with it. The latches work fine, but I worry that they are stuck to the outside of the case with no ridges to protect them, so I do not know how they will hold up to regular baggage handler abuse. On the plus side, SKB stands behind their products with terrific warranties and they are really good about replacing broken hardware The molded plastic handle is comfortable enough, but it would be nice if there were eyelets so that a shoulder or possibly even backpack straps could be attached.

This does not seem like too much to ask, because the SKB 1SKB-300 is awfully expensive for such a small, no-frills case. The list price for one of these is $144.99 with a street price of $99.99. It you are considering one of these, it would behoove you to keep your eye on Amazon, as the price for this fluctuates quite a bit – I have seen them as low as $65 to $75, which is quite a steal, especially if you get Amazon Prime free shipping.

This case is one of the only games in town, so if you are looking for a hard case for 3/4 –size guitar, you might want to pick one of these up.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fender Blues Junior Guitar Amplifier Cover Review


I love my Fender Blues Jr. III guitar amplifier, but one thing kind of chapped me when I bought it: for the price I paid, it really would have been nice for Fender to throw in a cover. Would it kill them?

I like keeping my combo amps covered when I am not using them for plenty of good reasons. A decent cover will keep dust and sunlight (and spilled beer) out, and keep it looking like new. Also, if I am taking it somewhere it will help protect it from rain or scuffs and scratches when loading it into my vehicle. So, I looked around on the internet and the best value for me was the factory cover, part number 005-4912-000.

When it showed up, there were no surprises. It is made of heavy nylon with piping stitched around the handle opening and the edges. There is no padding, so it will not protect against hard hits, but I knew this before I bought it. By the way, says this thing is made out of vinyl – it is not.

It is well-sewn, and it fits easily over the amp chassis with no troubles. There is enough extra room so it is easy to take on and off. I have seen some covers where they are so tight that they fit like a sausage, and they are a major league pain to use. That is not the case here.

Anyway, there is no drama and the Fender factory cover does exactly what it is supposed to. If you have a Blues Junior there is no excuse not to get a cover for it.

The best thing about this thing is the price. The Fender Blues Junior amplifier cover has a list price or $24.99 with a street price of $18.99, and many sellers will throw in free shipping. You will not find a better deal!


Friday, August 23, 2013

Central Coast Music of Morro Bay, California


I miss having small, independent music stores to shop in. In my area of Southern California, they have mostly disappeared as big retailers moved in and the internet slashed profit margins too thin for many of these brick and mortar stores to survive.

Well, there are still independent shops that I run to in my travels, and every time I head up to San Luis Obispo I make it a point to stop in at Central Coast Music in Morro Bay, California. I have bought plenty of stuff there over the years, from strings to guitars, and have always come away happy. There is always something cool to discover there, and it is a great place to do business.

Ed Frawley is the man behind the counter at Central Coast Music, and he has been preparing for this role since he was a kid. His old man ran a pawn shop in Southern California, and Ed learned how to be a salesman and run a business from him. After a stint in the service, Ed moved up to SLO County and went into a sales career. He ended up starting his own guitar shop as a side business in the early 1990s, too. It started small, in a store front attached to his house, but he moved to different locations in Morro bay, before he ended up in his current location, across from the Bay Theatre. Along the way he gave up his day job, and Central Coast Music became his main focus.

Central Coat Music is bigger than most mom and pop stores, and they carry a little bit of everything: guitars and basses, amps, strings, pedals, books, live sound, keyboards and drums. This is not Guitar Center, so there will not be more guitars than you can shake a stick at, but they have plenty of inventory.

They sell new instruments, and are happy to order most anything that you are looking for complete with competitive pricing. But what overjoys me when I go there is their collection of used equipment. They always have plenty of used amplifiers and guitars, and Ed will patiently let you try out the equipment without hovering and hassling you.

The last time I was in the store they had a few custom-made cigar box guitars that were built by a local guy using donor necks and components, and they are really neat instruments, both from a playability and an aesthetic viewpoint. I ended up falling in love with an old Takamine acoustic that just had to go home with me. It is a nice instrument, and Ed had it priced fairly, so it was a no brainer.

If you are in San Luis Obispo or Morro Bay (or if you are visiting Hearst Castle), you have to stop in and check out Central Coast Music. Buy some strings, rap with Ed and play a few guitars. The shop is located at 365 Morro Bay Boulevard in Morro Bay, California. They are open from Tuesday to Friday from 10 to 6, and on Saturday from 10 to 5. Tell him Rex says “hi!”


Monday, August 19, 2013

CD Review: Wells the Traveler – One for the Dreamers

Wells the Traveler – One for the Dreamers

Self Release

14 tracks / 47:42

Much of the music I hear is derivative of something else, so sometimes it feels like there is not very much new material out there. Often times I end up relating the albums I review to something that somebody already came up with (usually Robin Trower or Muddy Waters, strangely enough). Well, Danny McGaw has thrown me for a loop and put together a diverse crew to create something truly unique with his new band, Wells the Traveler.

Danny is from Manchester, England where his professional football career was cut short by injury at the age of 18. This is when he started his music career in earnest, eventually moving to the U.S. with a stop in Santa Monica where he played shows and sold his own CDs, and then on to his final destination of Kansas City about five years ago. He started his own studio there and over time has managed to thrive as a full-time musician, which is a tough road to follow.

Wells the Traveler includes five like-minded souls, including Dan Hines on bass, Chad Brothers on guitar, Jason Jones on drums (and guitars, accordion, keys, and sax), and Mike West (also from Manchester) on banjo, mandolin and guitars. Besides contributing his fine picking, West also took on the role of producer for this project. McGaw contributes guitars, piano, and percussion. He also takes on the primary vocal role, although it looks like everybody contributes their voices throughout their debut album, One for the Dreamers.

One for the Dreamers includes 14 original tracks, all written by Danny McGaw. These songs were recorded live at Mike West’s 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor studio in Lawrence, Kansas. As these are polished musicians, the material is not as raw as you might think, and it is mastered well so it sounds good while still capturing the energy and feeling of their live show.

“Can You Feel the Rain” is the opening track, and it starts out with pretty acoustic guitar and mandolin picking with a little kick drum and toms thrown in. From there, it builds as the lyrics enter and the vocal harmonies combine with electric guitars to make for a neat roots/rock song. There is a complex texture to this music, and the musicians have the ability to pull it off. The lyrics are very personal, and Danny’s voice has the emotion to captivate and pull the listener in.

The thing that strikes me most about this track (and all the others, too) is the maturity of McGaw’s songwriting. His choice of words is poetic, and the imagery he uses completes a complex picture in every song while still maintaining a very personal and intimate feel. Danny has recorded and released nine other CDs, so I should expect this, but his material really stands out, particularly when it is held up against much of the other new music I listen to.

The next track up is a neat bridge, “Turkish Café,” which is a half minute of percussion. I don’t know for sure, but this sounds like a soundbite that came up during the recording sessions, and they decided to put it into the album to help maintain the vibe. There is a second interlude, “Jones’ Lament” about half way through the album which is 30 seconds of piano that fills the gap between “Thursday Afternoon” and “Stand Up Straight.”

“Thursday Afternoon” is a folk rock song with a jazz break – this sounds weird when I put it down on paper, but it works when you listen to it. Jones’ drums and the percussion hold all of this together as the mood and tempo change throughout. “Stand Up Straight” uses its anthemic chorus and harder electric guitar sounds to help describe the feelings of a man who is trying to get his act back together again -- “I gotta find a way to be myself again.“ Amen, brother.

There is not enough space hear to describe all of the songs on the disc, but believe me when I say that each of them has its own sound and voice. The album finishes up with “I Wish You Well,” which has a lot going for it. Its message is a great sentiment that contrasts the heaviness of daily life with hope for the future. Musically it also has a multitude of neat components, including some country picking, doubled horn / whistling lines, and a driving beat with some slick tempo changes. This is a strong track and was a great choice to bring this project to a close.

This is a very good album with not a single clunker to be found. This hybrid of English rock and American folk music has a unique sound and feel, and you really have to give it a listen.

The One for the Dreamers release party will be on Friday, August 23 at the Brick in Kansas City, Missouri. The album will be available for sale in early September directly from their website as a download, or they can mail you a copy. Also, if you are in the Kansas City Area, be sure to check out Wells the Traveler’s website or Facebook page so you check out their schedule. As you will find out from this album, their live show is not to be missed!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Melvin Taylor – Beyond the Burning Guitar Album Review

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the January 31, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Melvin Taylor – Beyond the Burning Guitar

Eleven East Corp

24 tracks / 89:03

It used to be that whenever someone mentioned jazz guitar to me, I instinctively thought of it as the background music that played while I was eating overcooked pasta in bad restaurants. But as the years went by, I spent a lot of time listening to Django Reinhardt, George Benson, Charlie Christian, and John Mclaughlin, and realized that I had shortchanged myself by not giving this genre the attention it deserves. My exploration into this music introduced to Melvin Taylor’s work, as he is a fabulous jazz guitarist who ranks among the best in the business. He recently released his tenth studio album, Beyond the Burning Guitar, and it is quite a winner.

Melvin Taylor was born in Mississippi, but grew up in Chicago so he got to enjoy all of its wonderful musical influences. He took up the guitar as a young child, and is completely self-taught. Early on he caught the attention of Pinetop Perkins, who asked him to join the Legendary Blues Band for a European tour. Since then he has been recording on his own and touring with his own band, opening up for some true legends, including Buddy Guy and B.B. King.

His latest release, Beyond the Burning Guitar, is an ambition piece of work, with two discs, 24 instrumental tracks and a ninety minute play time. Melvin Taylor plays all of the guitar and bass parts, Bernell Anderson joins him on keyboards and Señor Jefe takes care of the drum and percussion parts. All of this music was written and arranged Mr. Taylor, with the obvious exception of his adaptation of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

Melvin is known for being a jazz guitarist, but it is not really fair to pigeon hole him based on one part of his abilities. As I said earlier, he has a strong blues background, and this release contains jazz, blues, fusion and even some rock; often times they are mixed together so that you would be hard-pressed to fit them into any one genre. You will find this out when you hear track one, “Dueling Guitars of Rio Terra,” as it is some really incredibly tough Spanish-influenced music. There are many layers of guitars to hear, and he has a gorgeous acoustic tone and incredible dexterity. I found that I missed out many of the nuances of this music when I played this through my car stereo, so this album is best heard through a good home sound system or headphones.

He hops genres frequently, and the second track is a jazz song titled “Steppers” that showcases how smoothly Taylor can play the guitar. Señor Jefe holds down a freakishly regular beat while Anderson adds just the right amount of mood with his keyboards, and you will find these things to be true throughout this double album. You will notice that there are no vocals on these tunes or anywhere else on Beyond the Burning Guitar, and it simply does not need any as the guitar fills the vocal role nicely. Also, the tracks are relatively short, with all of them coming in under five minutes each.

Mr. Talyor serves up some rock and blues material as well, most noticeably in “Rock In Blues” and “Sweet Blues,” as you can guess from their titles. “Rock In Blues” leans more towards the rock side, but there is a discernible blues foundation to this song. Taylor shows off his incredible chops and cuts loose with guitar pyrotechnics that are comparable to what Vai, Satriani or Hendrix have recorded. “Sweet Blues” has the Chicago blues sound with Hammond organ chords, a classic walking bass line and a heavy 2-4 drum beat. Melvin weaves two completely different guitar parts over this base and everything meshes together perfectly.

I could go on and on as there are a metric ton of tracks here, but you get the picture. The only downside to this two CD is set is that there is just too much of a good thing here, and it is hard for me to focus for an hour and a half on complex guitar music. If this is the only gripe I could think of then Melvin and his band did a pretty good job!

Melvin Taylor has gifted writing and guitar playing talents, and Beyond the Burning Guitar is his best work thus far. If you love guitar music and entertaining instrumentals, do yourself a favor and check out his music.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

2008 Ernie Ball MusicMan Sterling 5 HH Electric Bass Review


My friends know that I am not a 5-string bass kind of guy, but that does not keep me from getting one every year or so and giving it another go. This 2008 Musicman Sterling 5 was a failed experiment from a few years back.

Ernie Ball got a good grip on the 5-string bass market after they introduced the Stingray 5 back in 1987. Since then, it seems like every country band I have seen has a bassist that uses one.

Despite the popularity of the Stingray 5, there were folks out there that liked MusicMan’s Sterling aass more (different playability, tone and ergonomics) so in 2008 the company Introduced the Sterling 5 bass. This company is always innovating, and they pretty much are able to provide whatever a guitarist or bassist needs. This is yet another example of their efforts.

Visually, the Stering 5 is not a lot different, except that it has a more normal looking pickguard, but the body does have different contours than the SR5. This one is coated in a lovely coat of Graphite Pearl poly, with a matching headstock. The pickguard looks like they made it by cutting slices of a black and gray swirled bowling ball. Love it!

The neck is similar with a 34-inch scale, 1 ¾ inch compensated nut and 17.55mm string spacing at the bridge. But, due to the body contour, this neck is attached with five bolts instead of six, allowing access to that one extra fret that the Sterling 5 gets (22 versus 21). This one was built with a rosewood fretboard, but maple is also available; fretless models get pau ferro and stealth models get ebony boards. Hmm. The neck has a silky coating of gunstock oil and wax on the back, and it has the familiar truss rod adjuster wheel at the heel. I wish all bass makers did this.

The hardware is not terrible different than other Musicman basses, which is a good thing because it is high-quality stuff. This includes tapered post Schaller BM tuners and a high-mass bolt and screw on bridge with stainless steel saddles.

The electronics are where the Sterling 5 diverges the most from the Stingray 5. The same pickup configurations are the same (H, HS and HH), but that is where the similarities end. For starters, the Sterling uses ceramic instead of alnico pickup magnets. Right off the bat, this gives the sterling a more aggressive tone, keeping in mind that the Stingray has a fairly gnarly tone as it is.

Also, this HH model is wired with the pickups in series (instead of parallel), so the instrument gains some output from this as well. The pickups and preamp are voiced so that each position on the 5-pole switch provides a unique sound, and each one of these sounds is very usable: from a bluesy thump to an aggressive jazz bass tone, and everywhere in between. I will not describe all of these tones in any sort of detail, but if you ever get to try one of these basses, be sure to give it a run in each of the positions.

The controls are simple and include a three band EQ and a volume knob. These bases have a 9-volt pre-amp, so there is plenty of output to go around.

Ever since Ernie Ball bought out MusicMan back in the mid-1980s, their quality has been fantastic, and their products are among the best built bolt-neck instruments you can buy. This Sterling 5 is no exception.

The finish is flawless and very durable. I see no evidence of finish cracks or imperfections, and it Graphite Pearl is really quite a pretty color. The frets ends are perfect and the frets are level. I was able to get the action amazingly low with no buzzing or untoward playability issues.

At 10 pounds 6 ounces it is pretty heavy, but then again I’ve owned Les Pauls that weighed a couple pounds more. A friend of mine picked one up that was around 9 pounds, so I know they are out there, and it you are picky about weight it might be worth it to shop around a bit to find a lighter one.

As far as 5 string basses go, this one is a real winner. The B string is tight, and I like the narrowed string spacing at the bridge. I don’t know where all those whiny internet forum guys are coming from with their whining that they cannot get a MusicMan 5-er with 19mm spacing. They need to spend less time on the computer and more time playing their basses.

And lastly, the Sterling 5 tone just kills with amazing low mids. It is suitable for everything you can throw at it: jazz, blues, funk, rock, metal, reggae or whatever. It is truly a jack of all trades.

As I said earlier, I am not a 5-string guy, and this one disappeared shortly after I got it – I think it went wherever my old fretless basses go. Shudder.

Anyway, if you are looking for a MusicMan Sterling 5, they are a very nice instruments and are priced accordingly. The list price for a Sterling 5 HH with a rosewood fretboard and a matching headstock is $2700, and the street price is around $1890. If you are a 5-string guy, you really have to give one a try!


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fender Vintage Reissue ‘65 Twin Reverb Guitar Amplifier Review


There are some truly amazing things in our world. And sometimes you lust for one of these things so badly and for so long, that by the time you finally get it, you realize that either it was not what your really wanted, or that you are in way over your head. Maybe it is a supermodel girlfriend, a high-pressure career, or that hotrod ski boat or muscle car. For me, this great white whale is the Fender Twin Reverb…

Fender introduced the original amplifier back in the 1960s, and it is generally regarded as the cleanest amplifier you can buy, as well as the loudest combo amp for it size. Both of these claims are still true, and the Vintage Reissue ‘65 Twin Reverb is worthy of the name and heritage. A veritable Who’s Who list of rock stars have used these amplifiers, including Hendrix, Clapton, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

It is not terribly huge, measuring 27 x 20 x 11 inches, but it certainly feels a lot heavier than its 64 pounds when hauling it around by the single vinyl handle screwed to its top. It has a super-solid chassis that is hewn from 7-ply 5/8-inch Baltic Birch plywood. You cannot by better wood that is this strong. The whole thing is covered in black nubbly tolex and combining this with the blackface control panel and the silver grill cloth gives the Twin Reverb that vintage look. Oh yes, and it has the tilt back legs of the original, too.

It is an 85-watt (at 4 Ohms) all-tube amp, and it comes loaded for bear. It is built with four 6L6 Groove Tubes output tubes, four 12AX7 preamp tubes, and two 12AT7 preamp tubes. Since the beginning of time, the Fender Twin Reverb has used a solid-state rectifier. All of this power is channeled into two 8 Ohm ceramic magnet 12-inch Jensen C12K speakers (a 4 Ohm load).

On the front of the chassis you will find two independent channels: Normal and Vibrato. There are two inputs for each of these.

The Normal channel has a three band EQ, a volume control and a Bright switch. This switch is intended to be used when the volume is set below 6 (or so) to compensate for any loss of high end.

The Vibrato channel has these same controls, plus knobs for Reverb, Speed and Intensity. The reverb circuit uses an awesome spring reverb, and the Speed and Intensity knobs control the vibrato effect. The included footswitch has two buttons to turn these effects on and off.

There is not too much to look at on the back: the on/off switch, a ground lift, two speaker outs, the footswitch jack and a 4 Amp Slo-Blow fuse. You will not find an effects loop or tuner out on this bad boy…

That covers the nuts and bolts, so I guess all that is left to talk about is its performance, and it is truly a factory-built hot rod!

It has power and volume to spare for anything I will ever do with it. Those 6L6’s are there just to look pretty and keep everything warm. In my studio I will never get past 2 without pissing off my neighbors, and in my world there is no way I am going to get a distorted tone without adding effects.

The clean tone is as advertised – amazing pure. It has a natural warmth but still has a supernatural clarity. It does not have any hum, and it would be a perfect amplifier for recording. If you choose to use effect there will not be any coloring of their signal, you will get out of this amp exactly what you put into it.

Also, the reverb is beautifully full, and is probably one of the best-sounding integrated units I have ever run into. Besides its obvious utility for rock music, the Twin Reverb would also be killer for country, or jazz.

So what is my beef with this amp? It is just an assortment of personal pet peeves. I miss having master and gain knobs, and it is just way more amplifier than I will ever have the use for. It would be better suited to guys that gig with bigger audiences. It is like having a Ferrari that I only get to drive around in 1st gear, if you know what I mean.

Though it is not the Ferrari of guitar amps, the Fender Vintage Reissue ’65 Twin Reverb is not terribly cheap either, with a list price of $1999.99 and a street price of $1349 (which should include the optional fitted cover, but does not, damn it). But it is well worth it if you crave clean tone and tons of volume. Just be careful of what you wish for, because you might just get it!


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review of Rock of Ages at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City


There more than enough shows on Broadway at any given point in time, and most of them are not first run shows. These other shows are there to provide tourists with something to see every night of the week, and some of them are pretty awful. Fortunately, Rock of Ages does not fall into this category.

If you have seen the 2012 Tom Cruise movie version of this show, then you already know what it is all about. It is the story of Sherrie, a wanna-be actress who hits Hollywood’s Sunset Strip straight off the bus from Kansas, who meets Drew and gets dragged into the seedy underbelly of the 1980s Hollywood music scene. Drew is a flunky at The Bourbon Room, a fictional rock club that is having its own share of troubles with the city. All of this comes to a head when the clubs management gets the idea of trying to save the club by having Stacee Jaxx and his uber band, Arsenal, perform their farewell show at the club. There are plenty of clichés and a wafer thin plot that results in Drew getting his big shot at stardom by having his band open for Arsenal. Hilarity ensues.

Ok. Rock of Ages is not nearly as bad as the preceding paragraph makes it seem. This show is saved by the endless soundtrack of 1980s rock and the solid performances that are turned in by the performers. Of course, it will only make sense if you lived through and enjoyed the rock scene back then. If not, you better find another show to see.

Rock of Ages originally opened in Hollywood back in 2005, with a book by Chris D’Arienzo, and score by your favorite hair bands of the 80’s, including Journey, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, Poison, Bon Jovi, Styx and many more. A jukebox musical, if you will. After various productions popped up around the US, it finally opened on Broadway in 2009 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and then the Helen Hayes Theatre in 2011, where you can find it today.

The Helen Hayes Theatre is the smallest theatre on Broadway, with a tad under 600 seats. It opened in 1912, at the Little Theatre, and was named after Ms. Hayes after her namesake theatre was demolished in 1983 to build the Marriott. Rock of Ages is the most financially successful production ever to play there. Rumor has it that the theatre is up for sale -- real estate is expensive in Midtown Manhattan, you know.

The show features a live band on stage most of the time, and it is a corker. Henry Aronson is the musical director and mans the keyboards. Night Ranger and Trans Siberian guitarist Joel Hoekstra is also on hand, so he ought to know how to play “Sister Christian.” Blondie’s guitarist, Tommy Kessler is also on hand, and the rest of the group includes Winston Roye on bass and Jon Weber in the drum cage. This band kicks ass, and playing in it would be my dream gig. I’ll wait by the phone in case somebody gets sick…

The cast is also very good, though with two dozen songs there is very little acting to be done.

Kate Rockwell takes the role of Sherrie, and she is gorgeous with the voice of an angel. Her wig for when she was playing the good girl was totally not in the 1980s style, but when she took on the stripper role, they did a much better job with her hair (I notice these things). Her soul mate, Drew, was played by Justin Matthew Sargent (yes, that is the way you spell it), and he did a passable job. His voice is strong, but was quite shrieky and it grated on my nerves by the end of the show. He made me wish Stacee Jaxx had gotten the girl in the end, to be honest.

My favorite performances were Joey Calveri’s portrayal of Stacee Jaxx, Adam Dannheisser as Dennis (the owner of the Bourbon Room), and Genson Blimline as Dennis’ assistant, Lonny. Glimline stole the show, and he was a real treat to see! The rest of the cast was certainly talented, and with the number of shows they perform, they certainly have had the opportunity to hone their roles.

The sets, sound and lighting were up to snuff for a Broadway production, and I the costumes were right in line with what I would expect for a 1980s hard rock-insipred musical. The day-glow lingerie was to die for.

There were a few downers for the show. The audience was mostly really old tourists, and they did not get into it at all. The freebie Coors Light LED cigarette lighters went unused by them, as ½ the people in my row were asleep, and the rest of them did not come back after the intermission. Also, 2 ½ hours is too long to sit in this cramped theatre, especially after downing a few 8-dollar beers and waiting in line for the tiny restrooms. I will try to find another place in The City to catch a show next time.

Anyway, if you can put these things aside (and if you are familiar with the music), you can have a really good time at Rock of Ages. It is playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre, which is located at 240 West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan.

By the way, I see that the show is also playing at the Venetian in Las Vegas. This might be the hot ticket, and I will have to check it out the next time I am in town. Watch for my review later this year.


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ernie Ball PowerPeg String Winder Review


Well, here is something I thought I could live without until I actually used one – the Ernie Ball PowerPeg powered string winder.

If you have ever changed strings on a guitar or bass, you know that most of the time is spent getting the string ends wound around the tuner post. Often times you get a few turns on it and then it pops off, and the whole thing is kind of a hassle. I have used a Jim Dunlop manual string winder for years, and it does a pretty good job of speeding things up and saving my fingers, but it turns out that there really is a better way.

The Ernie Ball strong company introduced the PowerPeg a few years ago, and I did not think much of it at the time. I mean, how much better could this be than my old hand crank winder? Plenty, it turns out…

My PowerPeg winder was included in a promotional deal with a brick of new Slinkies, so I had to give it a try. After removing it from the plastic tray I was not super impressed, as it is lightweight, and the silkscreened logo is fuzzy and crooked. Part of its lightness was due to the fact that the 4 AA batteries it uses were not included. There is no good excuse for the silkscreen appearance, though.

The unit is the size of a small cordless drill/driver, and is an eye-catching combination of red and black, maybe so it will not get lost on the workbench. Controls consist of a rocker trigger switch for forward and backward operation and an ON/FF that locks out the trigger. That is it. The universal head attachment is cleverly designed so that it fits everything from ukulele tuner knobs to big Schaller-style bass cloverleaf tuners. I wish the head attachment would detach so that I could use it in my Dremel cordless driver if this thing ever poops out on me.

There is no drama to using the PowerPeg, as it fits neatly in the hand and the dual-direction trigger is intuitive. I have used it on all of my guitars and basses, and have not found one that will not fit. Despite its lack of heft, it is holding up fine, with no wobble to the head attachment. The original batteries that I put in it are still going strong after dozens of string changes. So, it does everything as advertised.

And in the real world I use this thing all the time. I change at least a few sets of strings per month, and it drastically cuts down the time of this maintenance chore. The true test was putting a new set of strings on my 12-string. I always procrastinate on this one because it is a major league pain to work on, but the PowerPeg made this job tolerable, which says a lot.

Anyway, the Ernie Ball PowerPeg is a good tool, and is reasonably priced. I see them at Guitar Center for about $20 (MSRP is $29.99), and it is worth every penny when you consider all of the time it will save and the aggravation that will be avoided. Check one out if you get the chance!


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Little Martin LXK2 Acoustic Travel Guitar Review


I travel a lot for my day job, and to keep my fingers in shape I usually take along a guitar, which is often a hassle when flying the friendly skies. This has lead to a lot of experimentation with different travel guitars, and the best compromise I have found so far is the Little Martin LXK2.

My goal was to find something that would fit easily in the overhead bin, be reasonably priced, play well, and sound good. There are plenty of products on the market that do the first two things, but they often end up being miserable to play and/or sounding like crap (e.g. the Martin Backpacker or any of those crummy little Yamaha ¾ size acoustics). So the obvious choices were the Little Martin or the small-size Taylors.

So, when it came time to pick up a 3/4 –size guitar, I did my due diligence, and A/B’d the Little Martin with the Baby Taylor and the Taylor Mini GS. Do not get me wrong, both of the Taylors are fantastic instruments, and played very well, but I just liked the sound of the Martin better. A matter of personal preference, I guess. So let’s take a look at this thing.

For starters, the Little Martin is not assembled in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, as this would be impossible at this price point due to higher labor costs here. Instead, it is put together (with parts made in the US) at their factory in Mexico, the same one that builds their lower end and Backpacker instruments. Just so you know...

Also, the Little Martin does not use much in the way of solid woods. The top, back and sides are wood-patterned HPL, which stands for high-pressure laminate. To call it plywood would be churching it up a bit. The neck is what they call Stratabond, which is a laminated piece with about 35 strips of wood glued together. Martin markets these components as being environmentally responsible, but we all know that they use them because they are cheap. I don’t see too much of a downside with either one of these for a travel guitar, as these materials appear to be quite sturdy.

The top has “1-series" Sitka spruce bracing, like the cheaper Martin D-1 and DM models. This is a simpler light weight "A-frame" system that uses less braces. The cross braces are tapered drastically at the ends to improve flexibility at the edges of the top to improve bass response at the expense of the treble range. There is no free lunch, you know.

the neck has a glued mortise and tenon joint, unlike some of its competitors that use bolt-on necks (Baby Taylor). The fretboard and bridge base are made of Micarta which looks kind of like ebony but is actually a composite material that has a phenolic resin injected under high pressure into some sort of fiber (god know what), and then baked. Kind of like fiberglass or carbon fiber, I guess. Anyway it is hard as a rock, and sounds nice. You will also find nickel-plated Gotoh Tuners and a classy-looking Martin logo on the peghead.

Though it is small, the Little Martin is easy to play. It has a 23-inch scale (about 2 1/2 inches shorter than a full-size guitar), so it is not too much of a transition to this guitar. The neck has a flat oval shape, and it is considerably easier to play than Martin’s miserable Backpacker models. Fingerstyle is not too hard, and it is fun to play melody lines on it.

The body is a modified 0-14 shape, and it is big enough that it can be comfortably played on the knee, though I still prefer to use a strap, even when sitting. There is no neck dive and It is nice to have a body to rest the right arm against – both of these are big minuses for the Backpacker.

Besides playing well, it sounds pretty nice, too. Though it lacks the bass and punch of a dreadnought, it is loud enough for practicing or around the campfire, plus it sounds less tinny than the small Taylors, and nothing like the nasally Backpacker model. Apparently their bracing system lives up to its promises. It does not have a very complicated or rich sound, but it has even volume from string to string, and …

This particular guitar was very well put together by the folks down Mexico way, and the fretwork was very good. Intonation is pretty close to perfect. The action was way too high for my liking, but my tech did a set-up and lowered the bridge saddle, and now I am very happy with the way it plays. I am going to wear to cowboy chord frets out on this thing!

The Little Martin sounds good enough and plays so well (after a set-up), that I think this would be a great starter guitar for kids or people with small hands, and obviously it is a great instrument for the travelling business man.

This guitar comes with a nice padded gig bag, which has worked well for travel, but there is one caveat. On small regional jets there is just not enough room in the overhead bins (and no closet), so I have had to gate check it a few times. It has handled all of this with no problems, so it is super-durable. But…it still makes me nervous enough that I ended up springing for an SKB molded hard case. Now this thing is ready to travel anywhere and I can have peace of mind.

I have save the best part for last, and that is the price. The Little Martin LXK2 has a list price of $409 and a street price of $289, which includes the nice gig bag and a one-year warranty. You will get a lot of guitar for not much cash, so you should check one out if you get a chance.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sugar Blue – Raw Sugar Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the January 24, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Sugar Blue – Raw Sugar

Beeble Music

2 discs / 13 tracks / 119:16

If you love the harmonica, then picking up a copy of Sugar Blues’ Raw Sugar album will be a no-brainer. Sugar, originally known as James Whiting, is one of the finest players around and has the credentials to back it up. He was brought up in a musical family, was inspired by the jazz greats, and learned the harmonica by playing along with Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder songs. He has been appearing on recordings since 1975, and has played with the Rolling Stones, Prince, Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon, Frank Zappa, and too many other fine artists to list.

Sugar has released at least a dozen albums, and had his hand in a few Grammy awards over the years. Raw Sugar is a two disc live recording that includes Blue on harmonica and vocals, Rico McFarland on guitar, Damiano Della Torre on keyboards, Ilaria Lantieri Blue on bass and James Knowles on drums. This two hour collection of songs is broken up into two sets, with seven pieces written by band members as well as some neat cover tunes. Many of the songs on this compilation can be found on his earlier studio releases.

“Red Hot Mama” is the first song on disc one, and at 5 ½ minutes, it is one of the shortest tracks on Raw Sugar. This up-tempo piece kicks off their show like an old time blues review with a driving bass line, a machine-gun fast drum part and a full-blast organ. Right away you can hear that this a tight band and these guys feel the soul. Sugar Blue enters the fray with his distinctive harp sound, and we get to hear a bit of his smooth voice too. This was a great choice for starting things off!

There is an extra injection of funk as this song quickly segues into Muddy Waters’ “One More Mile” and Rico McFarland gets a chance to shine. Rico is straight out of Chicago and has played with some of the best including James Cotton and Lucky Peterson. His hot contemporary blues licks and smooth solos bring a lot to the table and are a nice counterpoint to the hopping rhythm section.

On this release there are plenty of songs over 10 minutes, as Sugar Blue lets his band mates have plenty of room to experiment, showing that he is not one to hog the spotlight. A great example of this is the band’s 14-minute version of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” perhaps one of the most recorded blues songs ever. They did a great job of making this song their own by giving it a faster and more modern arrangement. Della Torre had a part in this by adding a steady stream of honky-tonk piano throughout and even some subtle jazz work during a break in the action. I cannot say enough about Sugar Blues’ showmanship and harmonica skills, as he is one of the best out there and this song should be required listening for anybody that is learning to play the harp.

There is little chance that Sugar Blue would do a show without including his two most famous songs, “Another Man Done Gone” and “Miss You.” Sonny Boy Williamson recorded “Another Man Done Gone” first, but Sugar earned a Grammy for it with his fabulous performance at the Montreux Jazz Fest in the early 1980s. Of course he has played this song quite a bit since then, and it comes off perfectly on this recording. The Rolling Stones’ chart-topper “Missing You” is Sugar Blue’s most commercially successful song, and I always considered it to be Jagger/Richards’ funkiest effort -- it was certainly popular in the clubs back in the late 1970s. But Sugar’s band takes this song to a whole new level, led by Iliana’s hot bass line which is perfectly synced with Knowles’ drums, and it is most definitely one of my favorites on Raw Sugar.

Many times artists edit out their conversations with the crowd from their live albums, but Sugar Blue left many of his in, for which I am grateful. If you have not seen the man play live, these excepts give you a great insight into his personality and nature, and it is plain from these CDs that he is a humble and sweet man who loves to play out with his friends and lives to please his fans.

If you are a fan of Sugar Blue or have been lucky enough to attend one of his shows, Raw Sugar is a must-have CD. If you love blues harmonica and want to capture the energy of a great performance, you should make the effort to check this CD out; if you do you will want to get a copy for yourself!


Thursday, August 1, 2013

2010 Gibson Explorer Electric Guitar Review

Hi there!

There is a general consensus in the rock world that the Les Paul is the ne plus ultra of the Gibson electric guitars. But for me, I always preferred SGs as I think they sound better and play smoother with less of a weight penalty. That is, until I finally got an Explorer.

Gibson launched the Explorer model in 1958, and their goal for this and the Flying V (introduced the same year) was to push the envelope and put forth a space-age design. They hit the mark, in my opinion.

Consumers did not agree, and the Explorer was discontinued in 1963, only to be introduced again in 1976 when Gibson saw that other manufacturers (especially Hamer) were successfully selling their design. It became an iconic instrument for hard rock and heavy metal guitarists, with James Hetfield from Metallica being the most famous.

There have been quite a few changes over the years, but we are going to focus on the here and now as today we are looking at my 2010 Gibson Explorer.

We had better start with the body, which is a humongous slab of mahogany. It has a truly bizarre shape with a long lower fin and no forearm or belly contours. This one is covered in a glossy coat of Ebony, which is thin enough that you can see the pockmarks of the grain. These guitars are also available in Cherry or Classic White. I think that Ebony looks the best on this body shape. All of the colors come with a three-layer white pickguard.

It is loaded up with a 596R neck pickup and a 500T bridge pickup, neither of which have covers. It is wired more simply than a Les Paul with two volume knobs, a tone knob and a 3-way pickup selector toggle. By the way, it has speed knobs, which have always been my favorite look. The electronics are accessed through a plastic cavity cover on the back of the guitar.

The Explorer has a slim profile set neck, which is made of mahogany with a rosewood fretboard. I hear that Gibson is now using granadillo for fretboards, which is a green ebony that comes from trees in West India. No comment.

There are 22 frets and some pearloid dot inlays sunk into the fretboard. There is no binding to be found, either on the neck or the body. The Corian nut is the Gibson standard 1.695” width.

The pointy (and perfectly chip-able) headstock has the Gibson logo inlaid into the tip, and has the classic bell-shaped truss rod cover. There are chrome plated mini Grover tuners, which match the stop bar tailpiece and Tune-O-Matic bridge.

The Gibson Explorer comes in quite a bit cheaper than its Les Paul cousins, with a list price of $2399, and a street price of $1399, which includes one of the biggest hardshell cases I have ever seen. It is covered with lizard texture Tolex and lined with bright white fur! I’m in love!

I found this one at my local Best Buy with plenty of shop wear, but at a stupidly cheap price (under $500, including tax and the original hard case and paperwork). They slashed prices when they shut down the music departments in their stores this past spring, so I stocked up on instruments to pull down some extra cash.

But, after a quick and dirty set-up I forgot any ideas I had of flipping this guitar to make a few hundred bucks. This thing plays incredibly, and sounds beautiful! The pickups are terrific for rock or metal, though they are lacking in pure clean tones. Combining this with that big chunk of mahogany equals a super fat tone. It is a grinding and distortion machine.

The neck is a departure from many modern-day Gibson, in that the frets are level and the intonation is great. I know they say that all of the instruments that come out of Nashville are Plek’d, and if this is so than I have no respect for the Plek process. Almost all new Gibson solid body guitars play like crap right out of the box, and require extensive work to reach their full potential. I am glad that this one is an exception.

Ergonomically, it can be a bit tricky, depending on your playing style. The body is big, and I have heard some players complain that the huge lower fin gets in the way of their forearm when playing. I have not run into any trouble with this, so maybe I hold the guitar differently than they do. In mitigation of any ergonomic issues, this Explorer weighs around 9 pounds, which is way lighter than most of the Les Pauls I have ever owned.

Anyway, this guitar will not look quite like this anymore. One of my very good friends is an artist with a tremendous sense of style, and I have given him this guitar as a blank canvas to do with as he wishes. I look forward to sharing the results with you!