Monday, October 28, 2013

Friday, October 25, 2013

Sennheiser HD 650 Headphones Review


Over the past few years I have spent a lot more time listening to music through headphones, and have tried many different combinations of headphones and have not found any yet that compare to the ones I borrowed from my boss, the Sennheiser HD 650. My current go-to headphones are their HD 250 Pro, and if you know anything about their products, the higher the model number the better (and more expensive) they are.

The HD 250 Pro are very good cans, and if you are going to spend five times the price for a new set, there had better be a noticeable improvement in sound. The HD 650 phones deliver this is spades. These are open-back headphones, so these are not the ones you are going to use at the office or gym or on the airplane. A lot of ambient sound will make their way in, and you will disturb your neighbors.

Physically, these phones are open back (as I just said), and they fit comfortably around the ears (circumaural) with cozy replaceable ear pads. They weigh in at around 9 ounces (a bit heavier than normal), but they are nicely adjustable and they are some of the most comfortable ones I have ever stuck on my head. The coiled cord is about 10 feet long, with a ¼-inch jack and a 1/8-inch mini jack adapter is included. The cord is replaceable should it happen to be damaged. Overall they are very smart-looking with a slick titanium finish and an imposing size.

The specification sheet provided by Sennheiser for the HD 650 contain no surprises for headphones in this price range. They are equipped with neodymium magnets and frequency response is supposed to be 10 to 49,500 Hz, with a total harmonic distortion of less than 0.05%. With 300 ohms of resistance, these things will take a lot of power to drive. They will not work well with an iPod or laptop unless a headphone amplifier is used.

I tested these headphones with a variety of audio sources, including my home stereo, my iPod and iPad, as well as my laptop. I used them with and without headphone amplifiers (solid state and tube-type) and with my usual assortment of music and movies. This includes mostly rock and blues, with a little country, classical and show tunes to round things out.

And they perform magnificently. The magnets are matched so that they have virtually even output (+/- 1 dB). They lightweight aluminum voice coils are very sensitive and crisp with no distortion at any normal volume levels. The highs are clear and do not have any unnatural elements to them. The mid ranges seem slightly boosted, mostly in the upper mids. This is not distracting to me, and I like the effect for most music. The bass is the best I ever heard, very crisp and powerful, but still well-balanced with the mids and highs. I found that they sounded best with classical and jazz music, and using them with a home theatre system is mind-blowing. They are maybe a little lacking for hard-rocking music. Of course, these are subjective observations, and depending on what kind of music you are listening to you might find other headphoens that you prefer (but I doubt it).

In the real world, due to their design there is not much isolation, so if there is any background noise it will makes its way in too. This means that they are really not the best headphones for me, as I am never anywhere that it is quiet enough to get the full benefit from these headphones. But, if you are an audiophile that has a quiet place to enjoy these, they should be close to the top of your shopping list.

But, when you go shopping, make sure that you have plenty of cash in your pockets. The Sennheiser HD 650 headphones sell for around $600, which makes these a serious purchase. But they are worth it, and if you ever get a chance to try a pair out, you will be amazed!


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hal Leonard Guitar Method Complete Edition Review


I run into people all the time that say that they have always wanted to learn how to play the guitar. If it is something that you have always wanted to do, then make the time and get down to it. And, if you are self-motivated, the Hal Leonard Guitar Method is a great place to start. I have bought many copies over the years as I usually end up giving mine to a fledgling guitarist that is in need of direction.

Hal Leonard is the world’s biggest music print publisher, and they have been around for over 60 years. Whether you are looking for sheet music, orchestral arrangements or instructional materials, they have all of the basses covered. The Hal Leonard Guitar Method has been around for over 30 years, and the Will Schmid / Greg Koch second edition has become an industry standard, and a top seller in their catalog.

The Complete Edition that we are looking at here today is all three books combined into one, and it includes play-along CDs for each of the volumes. It is a 144 page full-size (12 x 9 inch) book with a plastic comb binding, which allows it to lie flat on a music stand. This is a great format as staple or glue bound books have trouble staying open, and once you break the spine to flatten it the pages start to fall out. Comb or spiral binding are the only ways to go.

This book is great for the novice as it starts at the very beginning. By the beginning, I mean it talks about the different types of guitars, the names of the guitar parts, and even how to properly hold the guitar and tune it. By the way, this method works well with either acoustic or electric guitars. Anyway, from there, they dive into how to play, and I like the way they go about it, though I could see how some might have a problem with it.

A lot of young players want to learn to play songs right away, and I can understand their motivation, but this book focuses on the fundamentals, which includes learning how to read music. The authors go one string at a time in the first position, showing where the notes fall on the staff, and working in simple melodies with ¾ and 4/4 time signatures. I think this is a very effective teaching technique, and the ability to read music will only help in the future to help sort out melodies from sheet music or if the guitarist actually gets a paying gig that requires the ability to read sheet music.

Another cool thing is that chords are held off for a few weeks, which helps the budding player develop some callouses, which makes fretting chords a lot more satisfying. New chords and theory are introduced a bit at a time, so the student does not get overwhelmed.

Some of the songs and melodies can be hokey (e.g. “When the Saints Go Marching In”), but this is a beginner book and these simpler melodies are ones that most people can remember. In all cases, there are chords listed on top of the staff so the instructor (if there is one) can play along, and there also duets so that the learner can play some neat harmonic parts.

The first book finishes off with eighth notes and basic strumming techniques, and books two and three move into faster work, plenty of new chords (including barre chords), different picking techniques and more intricate and useful sheet music and melodies. If the player completes all three books of this method, they will be a solid intermediate player that can actually read music, which puts them a step ahead in my book.

This edition came with three CDs (one for each book), and they are neat play along pieces for many of the lessons within the books. They mostly have complete full band arrangements with other guitar lines, bass, drums and synthesizers. Often times they are presented in different tempos or formats, so the listener can hear the different ways that the same line can be played. The arrangements border on bizarre at times (like muzak you might hear in a Japanese department store), but I think they are fun. It is certainly a nice bonus for learners that might not know the melodies or are having trouble working out the rhythms and time signatures.

The best part about the Hal Leonard Guitar Method Complete Edition with CDs is the price. It has a list price of $24.99, but I see them online for as low as $14.99 from major retailers like Walmart. That is way cheaper than a single guitar lesson, so you might want to get a copy if you are thinking of taking up the instrument.


Monday, October 21, 2013

2004 Musicman SUB 4 Bass Guitar Review


There are some super nice American-made basses out that are still ridiculously good bargains and today we are looking at one of these, a 2006 Musicman SUB 4.

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 will notice that it does not say “Ernie Ball” anywhere on this bass...

The SUB 4 was their take on the Stingray 4 bass, their most popular model. This one has a non-contoured poplar body that is finished in black, which was their most common color. Many of the SUB instruments came with a lame faux diamond plate pickguard, but the later ones came with a black plastic guard. I replaced the diamond plate pickguard on this one as I could not stand the way it looked. By the way, they are the same pattern as the Stingray, so you can use any Ray pickguard on the SUB 4 basses.

The neck is maple (painted matte black) with a 11-inch radius rosewood fretboard and 22 high-profile, wide frets sunk into the fretboard. This is a 34-inch scale instrument, and the neck is 1 5/8-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 though the bridge is similar it seems a bit cheaper. They had to get the price down somehow, you know.

The electronics package is very Stingray-like, which is a good thing. These basses came with a single Musicman humbucker that had a volume control and a 2-band EQ. One cool thing about these basses was that they were offered in either active or passive configurations, which is not an option that the company has provided for the Stingray either before or since the SUB series was in production. This one is active, but I have played the passive basses and they have a pleasant sound that is not so aggressive.

And this is really a great bass, regardless of how much it cost (which wasn’t very much, really). The pickup is mighty, and it has that distinctive thick Stingray growl that is perfect for rock. Though the hardware is not quite as good as their 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 touch under 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.

Overall this was a great playing bass, but I have enough nice playing basses so this one just did not make the cut.

The MusicMan SUB 4 basses were made from 2003 to 2006, and they were quite a bargain, with a list price of $1013.99 and a street price of $700 or so, if I remember correctly. On today’s used market they sell for about $300 or $400, which is a heck of a deal for a solid bass.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Seagull Coastline 12 String Acoustic Guitar Review


Today we are looking at another nice 12-string acoustic guitar out of Canada, a Seagull Coastline S12. Seagull brand acoustics are one of the best values out there. They are part of the Godin family of guitars and are made in Quebec. Canada using mostly locally sourced woods (there a lot of trees in Canada, you know). Anyway, I am pleased with the sound, quality and price of this guitar and it gives the entry-level Martin and Taylor guitars a real run for their money.

The Coastline S12 is a handsome dreadnought guitar with a pressure-tested solid spruce top, and pretty laminated wild cherry on for the back and sides. It has a simple blindingly white binding around the top and back, and it has been sprayed with a thin semi-gloss finish that does not muzzle its tone.

This Seagull’s neck is made of flamed Silver Leaf Maple, which is a wood I had to do a little research about. This species is native to northeastern Quebec, and has the same density as mahogany, but it is less porous so it can have a smoother finish. These necks are sanded and buffed by hand, and this one is really quite smooth.

The Tusq nut is 1.8-inches wide and there are 21 well-finished medium frets sunk into the rosewood fretboard. There is a dual-action trussrod in the neck, but I have not needed to touch it as this guitar had a great set-up right out of the box. The intonation is good, probably helped in part by the compensated Tusq bridge saddle. The sealed tuners hold well too.

The craftsmanship is first rate, and if you go the internet you can see for yourself that these instruments are made in a small town by luthiers that care about what they are doing. They have a lot of pride in what they do, and it shows in their guitars.

The Coastline is a fairly normal-sized dreadnought, measuring about 5 inches deep and 16 inches across the lower bout. So, it fits well in the lap or on a strap and it is comfortable to play. It also has a fairly narrow nut for a 12-string, and it plays very easily. If you are coming from a 6-string dreadnought it would not take too much adjustment to your playing style if you pick up this twelve-string. You might want to keep in mind that it is a bit heavier than your usual 6-string, coming in at around 5 pounds, 6 ounces.

Besides playing well, it also sounds nice! It has a bright tone that is balanced well with a good low end, and of course it produces good volume when played hard. As I said before it holds up well when compared to the $1000 entry-level Martins and Taylors. Particularly when you consider the price of this guitar…

The Seagull Coastline S12 has a list price of $620.00, and a street price of $499.99. I have seen them a bit cheaper than MAP online, so make sure you shop around. I do not know how they can sell them this cheaply, and this is the best value in the entry-level 12-string market. Check one out if you get the chance!


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Honda EU3000iS Portable Generator Review


I am a huge fan of Honda generators, and my EU2000i has been extremely versatile for smaller outdoor gigs and parties (not to mention power failures), but in the back of my mind I always wonder if I am going to have to run a show that is going to require more power than it is up for. Well, I figured that it was high time to take a look at the next model up in the Honda line, the EU3000iS.

The EU3000iS is a clean-looking generator that is fairly compact, measuring around 26 x 19 x 23 inches. It has a lot of quality in it, so it is not terribly light, coming in at 134 pounds dry. With its fuel tank full it is around 160 pounds, so you will really need both of those handles to haul this thing around. Or you could spring for the optional wheel kit…

It has a 196cc 4-cycle gasoline engine that is mounted on a metal chassis inside its blow-molded plastic cladding. There are two 20A 125V AC outlets and a 30A 125 locking plug (to attach it to a motorhome), as well as a bonus 144 watt DC outlet that can put out 12 amps at 12 volts. The DC outlet is designed to accept a specific Honda wiring harness that can be used to charge automotive type batteries. Overall this generator is rated for a maximum of 3000 watts at 120V AC (25 amps), and a more realistic 2800 watts at 120V AC (23.3 amps).

One neat feature of this generator is that should you ever decide that you need more power, you can buy another EU3000iS and easily link them together with a special wiring harness to double your power output. Honda has some clever engineers, I guess.

It is super-easy to use. Turn the fuel level ON, Pull the choke knob out, and turn the engine switch to the START position. The electric starter takes care of the rest. Should the internal battery go flat there is also a recoil starter, and this thing will pretty much get going in one pull. Once it is going, you can back off the choke pretty quickly, and once you put it into Eco-throttle mode (by pressing a switch) it will quiet down considerably.

Eco-throttle mode will be fine for your live-sound needs, as you will not need to have instant access to full power like you would if you were running a power saw. This mode will reduce noise and let you go a lot longer on a tank of fuel. And you will find that quietness and fuel-efficiency are what Honda generators are all about.

The EU3000iS is insanely quiet. When I tried this one out for the first time I chained it to a tree about 40 feet away from the sound board. I started it up, started stringing the extension cord, and by the time I got to my table I could not hear it over the sound of the crummy Harbor Freight generators that the bounce house guys were using on the other side of the park. It is rated at 58 dB(A) at full power or 49 dB(A) at ¼ power.

At this event I went through less than a gallon of fuel in five hours. This was running a mixing board, two 500-watt powered speakers, a wireless set-up, a small effects rack with a CD player and my laptop. Honda says that it will empty its 3.4-gallon tank in 7.24 hours at maximum power or 20 hours at ¼ power. That would be nice for your next power outage!

Maintenance is simple, but is very important. The oil should be changed after the first 20 hours of use and then every 50 hours thereafter. This is not a hard job but it is a little messy and your Honda dealer would be happy to take care of it for you (for a fee). They also have 300 hour intervals for air filter changes and valve adjustments. The other thing to remember is to keep the fuel in good shape. I recommend a fuel stabilizer, such as Sta-Bil, that will keep the gas from going bad. Run the generator at least once or month to keep crap from building up in the fuel system. That is about it. You might need a spark plug sometime, but they make plugs a lot better than they used to so it should be good for quite a while.

There have been no surprises with the EU3000iS. I have used it for a few outdoor shows and some light construction work and it has never let me down while putting out perfectly clean power. Its inverter provides stable power for computers, and my amplifiers have quite a bit less noise when using this generator than many hard-wired residential or commercial power outlets that I have used. You will not have this luxury with a cheap-o generator.

I have not used it during a power outage, but it has a lot more output than my EU2000i, which has always worked well in the past. Honda says the EU300iS will run an Energy Star efficient fridge or freezer, a 13,500 BTU RV air conditioner, a furnace fan or any number of other appliances including microwave ovens and blenders. It would certainly be cool for camping or a tailgate party.

The Honda EU3000iS is not cheap, with an MSRP of $2329 and a street price of around $1999. I know you can get more powerful generators for less money at Harbor Freight or Home Depot. But, you get what you pay for, and Honda is the leader in reliability, quietness and efficiency. They offer a 3-year warranty on their generators, which is head and shoulders above any of the other manufacturers. Think about it…


Sunday, October 13, 2013

2005 Spector Euro 5 LX Bass Guitar Review


Hi there! Ever since I saw my first Spector NS bass, I have thought they are the sexiest basses ever built, and it turns out that they are really nice basses too. Today we are looking at an NS variant that was yet another failed attempt by me to take up the 5-string bass: 2005 Spector Euro 5 LX.

The Euro 5 LX shares the same contoured body shape as the NS, at a considerably lower price than the US-built Spectors. The Euro models are made in the Czech Republic, so the Euro designation is not just a clever name. This Euro models have been in production for over 10 years.

Other features it shares with the US model are the neck-through construction and the electronics package. The build quality is very good. I have played quite a few of these basses and have not found build issues with any of them.

The bass we are looking at today has a an oil finish over a figured maple top and alder body. There is a pretty large control cavity routed out of the back, which needs to be removed to access the battery. I have never been a fan that the control covers on these instruments are mounted over the body so that they are over flush. If they could break out the router and countersink the cover into the body it would look a lot cleaner. Maybe when I hit the Powerball and buy the company I can change that…

This Euro 5 LX has a 3-piece rock maple neck with the optional 35-inch scale (34-inch is standard). As I said before, it is neck-through, and the neck is graphite-reinforced. There are 24 frets lovingly stuck into the rosewood fretboard, along with a gaggle of mother of pearl inlays. The fret work is pretty good, but not quite up to the standards set by other basses in the price range. This one had to have the frets leveled and dressed. This one also came with a factory-installed brass nut (1.84-inch), which kind of takes me back to the 70s. The fretboard is fairly flat with a 16-inch radius.

The hardware is first-rate. Besides that retro brass nut, Euro models come with Schaller tuners, Schaller strap locks and a solid brass zinc alloy bridge. The gold finished hardware is standard, which is my only visual gripe about the bass. Gold hardware is played (like brown Louis Vuitton), and shows fingerprints and smudges like nothing else on the planet.

The electronics are where I think these basses really shine. This Spector Euro 5 LX is outfitted with EMG 40DC pickups, and a TonePump pre-amplifier. Controls are two volume pots as well as treble and bass pots. The treble and bass controls are boost-only, which would not be my first choice, as I would like the option to cut as well. The output is thunderous, and it cuts through a mix as well as any bass you have ever heard. If that is what you are looking for, that is. The guys in your country band might not be too cool with its sound.

How does it play? Well, that is a problem for me, as I just cannot get used to playing a 5-string, let alone a 35-inch scale 5-string. I think it will take giving up the 4-string completely and switching over to a fiver to make this work for me. That just is not going to happen.

What I can tell you is that it is very well made and that it is not terribly heavy, coming in at 9 pounds, 10 ounces according to my digital scale. This is not bad for a neck-through bass. It balances nicely, and does not feel heavy on a strap. As it is a long scale bass with a small body those first few frets are quite a reach…

Spector in New York is only a phone call away and they do a great job of customer support, plus they also stand behind these basses with a limited lifetime warranty for the original buyer. Which is a good thing, because the list price for a Euro 5 LX is $3299 with a street price of $2299. You can usually find them in good used condition for around $1200. You will be hard-pressed to find a better bass for the money, but make sure you play one before you buy because they are a lot different than the Fender-style basses that most folks play.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Neighborhood Concert: Los Angeles Philharmonic and Julie Andrews at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, California


On September 28 I had the pleasure of attending one of the Neighborhood Concert series events that is put on by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This one was at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach California, and it was a really neat event.

The Neighborhood Concerts began in 1991 as an outreach to the Southern California community, and to date they have played over 100 concerts. This one was oriented towards children, so it started at 11:00 on a Saturday morning, and it only lasted about an hour.

The location was a great choice as the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking. Each of the 1000 seats has a good view of the stage (without being too far away) and the acoustics are very good. The event was sold out (though the tickets were free), and I was disappointed to see that about a quarter of the seats were empty. I guess there are a lot of other things to do in the southland on a lovely Saturday morning.

The show started on time with a few introductions, and the Conductor Rafael Payare kicked things off with the Overture from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Of course the LA Phil is a top shelf orchestra, so the performance was wonderful and this is a very accessible piece for youngsters and people who are not regularly in tune with classical or operatic music.

While the orchestra remained on stage, the audience had the treat of hearing from members of a Long Beach group, The Jazz Angels. This organization allows kids to learn jazz performance alongside seasoned adults, and this quintet did a wonderful job on “So What,” “Chitlins con Carne,” and “Sonnymoon for Two.” The latter two were arranged so that they band could play with the orchestra, and it must have been a real thrill for those kids to play alongside one of the best orchestras in the United States.

And the finale was Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music ever written. I guess all of those kid’s record albums they sold in the 1960s and 1970s did their job. Julie Andrews (of Mary Poppins and Sound of Music fame) narrated, and she has not lost a step in the last 50 years. It was truly a memorable performance.

This was a really cool opportunity for everyone who could attend, and I am grateful for those that helped it to come about, and that the Los Angeles Philharmonic continues to support the Neighborhood Concert series.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

1986 Aria Pro II SB Elite II Bass Guitar Review


Ever since I saw John Taylor playing an SB-1000 in the early 1980s, I have always thought that the Aria Pro II Super Basses were super cool, and after trying one out it turned out that I really liked the way they played too. Over the past few decades I have owned and sold dozens of SB-700 and SB-1000 models over the years, but have only owned a few of the SB Elite II models. I found the one we are looking at today at a pawn shop in Orange County, California.

The original run of Aria Pro II Super Basses were made in the 1970s and 1980s, and were the top of the line basses coming out of the Matsumoku factory in Japan. They were kind of a poor man’s Alembic, with multi-laminate neck-through construction and trick electronics. Aria found some high profile endorsers, including Jack Bruce and John Taylor, which gave them instant credibility.

At the time, all of the Super Basses had single pickups except for the SB-900and SM Elite II, which had two MB-II double coil (humbucking) pickups. These were wired through volume and tone controls, as well as a rotary 3-way pickup selector and two “dual sound” (coil tap) switches. But, unlike the SB-1000, the SB-900 and SBElite II did not get active electronics, so it is really more like a two pickup SB-700 or an SB Elite II.

Aside from the electronics, these basses received all the same high quality features as the other Super Basses. This includes a rosewood fretboard, a brass nut, a brass high-mass bridge, Gotoh tuners, and a nicely-figured body finished in natural, black or transparent red.

The transparent red one we have here is from 1986, so it is one of the last of these that were built before Aria moved production out of Japan. So, it has a few different features than the earlier SB-900 models including concentric volume and tone controls, repositioned coil tap switches, and the fancier cat’s-eye fretboard inlays.

For a 27 year old instrument the overall condition of this one is excellent with just a few light dings and scratches and no modifications to the electronics. Also, the frets were tarnished when I picked it up but showed very little wear and they polished up nicely. As a huge bonus this is the lightest SBs I have run across, coming in at 9 pounds, 7 ounces. I have seen some Super Basses that weigh as much as 12 pounds. Ouch.

This bass is very well made, with a beautiful finish and evidence of loving craftsmanship throughout. The frets are still level and nicely finished on the edges after all this time. It plays very smoothly and balances nicely on a strap.

The last SB Elite II I owned was anemic and with a weak tone and no mids, kind of like a lower output SB-700. Fortunately, this one has a more robust tone, and I have been able to dial in a meatier tone that is much more satisfying. Of course I wish it had more of an aggressive tone like the SB-1000, but with passive electronics it is only going to go so far.

I don’t know how this Aria Pro II SB Elite II will fit into my collection, as I have two Sadowskys that are much nicer instruments and I am mostly playing acoustic guitar now. But the soft spot in my heart for these basses might keep it around for a bit longer.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mike Wheeler Self Made Man Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the February 14, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Mike Wheeler – Self Made Man

Delmark Records

13 tracks / 1:06:28

Countless variations of blues music are being produced all over the world, and most of it is really terrific stuff and I love getting to learn something new every time I check out an artist’s latest material. But every time I hear some quality guitar-driven Chicago blues, it reminds me of why I was drawn to the genre in the first place. And that is why Mike Wheeler’s latest CD, Self Made Man, is in such heavy listening rotation for me right now.

Mike Wheeler has been around the block a few times, having pleased blues fans for almost three decades. He has been with quite a few different bands over the years, and has recorded albums with many of them. These include some true Illinois gems, such as Cadillac Dave & the Chicago Redhots, Big James & the Chicago Playboys and Peaches Staten. I might as well drop a few more names as he has played with some true legends, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor.

Mike has been so busy that he has not recorded very much of his own stuff, but he has made up for lost time with Self Made Man. Wheeler takes care of the vocals and guitar, and is joined by a fabulous band that includes Brian James on keyboards, Larry Williams on bass, and Cleo Cole behind the drum kit; harp-master Oman Coleman pitches in on a few tracks too. There is plenty of music on this disc, with 13 tracks and a 66 minute play time. All of these tracks are originals, with the exception of Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby.”

Wheeler has a strong and rich vice, and plays a mean blues guitar too. This is evident from the first bars of the lead-off track, “Here I Am.” This is one funky piece of music, and the guitar and bass are perfectly synced over James’ classic Hammond B3 sound. His guitar tone on this song reminds me a bit of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Mike is able to weave riffs in and out of the verses like the seasoned pro that he is.

Once I wrapped my mind around what good musical skills he has, I began to notice that Mike Wheeler is also a good writer and an engaging storyteller. He shows a great grasp of humor and irony as he explores the misery of getting trapped by the wrong mate (“Big Mistake”), being his own worst enemy (“Self Made Man”) and trying to make things right again (“I Don’t Like it Like That”). These songs are all set to solid blues score with a little funk thrown in for good measure.

Omar Coleman appears on “Self Made Man,” “Get Your Mind Right” and “Chicago Blues.” It seems like this Windy City man is playing everywhere (and with everyone) right now, and he is a force to be reckoned with. If you are not familiar with his work this album will be a great introduction to his talent and energy. His tone is unbelievable, and his ability to work his harp into the mix and play off of Wheeler’s guitars and vocals is uncanny. His contributions pushed “Self Made Man” over the top to make it my favorite track on the disc.

The lone cover tune on Self Made Man is “Let Me Love You Baby,” a Willie Dixon song that Koko Taylor hit out of the park back in the seventies. Wheeler does not try to copy what Taylor (or Steve Ray) did with this song, but instead provides his own smooth take on it. His guitars smooth out all of the edges on this song and with Brian James’ beautiful piano work helps this song flirt with the jazz genre. But the root is still the blues and Williams and Cole stay perfectly in sync to hold down the beat. I like that Mike stepped up and did something a little different with this classic tune.

Self Made Man is Chicago-influenced blues through and through, and it is a real pleasure to listen to all of the tracks -- there is not a clunker in the lot. Between the well-played guitar, the first-rate band and the clever lyrics, and I cannot think of anything on this album that a blues fan would object to. You should give it a listen and think about picking up a copy of your own!


Thursday, October 3, 2013

AER Compact 60/3 Acoustic Guitar Amplifier Review


Today we are looking at what is purported to be one of the best acoustic guitar amplifiers on the planet: the AER Compact 60/3. Designed for small gigs, this unit can handle both acoustic guitar and vocals simultaneously all in one ridiculously small package that includes digital reverb, delay, and chorus.

AER is a German company that has building amplifiers in Ruhr since 1992. They have recently branched out into bass and electric guitar amps, but they made their name on their acoustic combos. They have stuck true to their mission, and their amplifiers are still built in Germany.

The Compact 60/3 is rated for 60 watts (into 4 ohms), but I have not been able to figure out where the “3” in the model name comes from. This solid state unit (class AB, I think) drives a single dual-cone 8-inch speaker.

This comes in a nicely-sized package, measuring around 10 x 10 x 9 inches, and weighing a tic a little over 14 pounds according to my scale. The cabinet is made of ½-inch birch plywood, and it is sprayed with a tasteful black nubbly finish which goes well with the gray foam grille cover. It is small enough that the microphone stand mount is a viable option for this amp.

There are a few different things going on around the backside of the 60/3. There is a power switch and an IEC-type power cable (yay!), a ¼-inch line out and an XLR direct out. There is also an effects loop, a tuner out, a footswitch jack and a headphone jack.

On top of the combo are the inputs and controls for the two channels and the digital effects. Channel one has a ¼-inch input with a pad switch, a three band EQ, a gain control and a color switch. The color switch filters high frequencies so they are either softened or enhanced. Channel two has a combination XLR-1/4” jack with a line/mic switch, a two band EQ and a gain control.

The effects controls include a four-way effect selector, a level control and a pan knob. The pan knob controls how the internal effects and external effects (from the effects loop) are blended with the original signal. So, when the knob is turned all the way to the left, the internal effect will go to channel 1 and the external effect will go to channel 2. In the middle position the effects are split evenly between the channels, and when the knob is turned all the way to the right the internal effects go to channel 2 and the external effects got to channel 1. A foot switch can be used to turn the internal and external effect ON or OFF as well. Whew.

So, this amp has a lot of features and potential crammed into its tiny guts, and it certainly lives up to AER’s claims that it is compact and lightweight, but how well does it work in the real world?

After messing around with the effect controls and getting them the way I wanted them, I conclude that the Compact 60/3 is a fabulous amplifier. I tried it with my Takamine EF341SC (active pre-amp) and my Martin D-18 Golden era that as a K&K Sound Pure Mini pickup installed. It performed as superbly with both of them.

The sound reproduction with both instruments was very true with the EQ set flat. As there are no controls on the Martin, I was able to optimize the tone with the 3-band EQ. I color switch calmed down the top end on the Takamine nicely when I really laid into some heavy strumming. The effects are very good, and I though both of the reverbs (short and long) and the delay were certainly usable.

The vocal channel is also very good. I found the effects to be better served for this input, and adding a touch of reverb, delay or chorus made me sound a more palatable.

For its size, it is very loud, and it has such a natural tone that its output is such that it sounds less like an amplifier and more like the world’s biggest guitar is being played. It is a bit lacking in the bass department at higher volumes, but that is to be expected with the size of the speaker and cabinet. It would be fine for a coffee-house or small wedding/party gig, but it seems like it would be better served in the studio or at home.

But there are some downsides, and they are all related to what I expect from an amplifier that costs this much moolah. For starters, there should be an output to power another speaker cabinet. Also, I would like to be able to use more than one of the onboard effects at a time, and the delay and reverbs should be adjustable, not just ON or OFF.

Despite these gripes, I would buy one if I had the cash, but for now my old Fender Acoustasonic will have to do the job for me.

Should you choose to buy the AER Compact 60/3, they are not exactly cheap, with a list price of $1299 and a street price of $1099. This price includes all of that German handiwork and a nice gig bag. How could you go wrong?


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

4th Quarter of 2013 Inventory Update

Hi there!

I cannot believe that another three months have passed, and it is time again to look at what is cluttering up my studio these days. Despite my best intentions, I have made little room recently, and need to move some of this stuff along to someone else. So, if you see anything here that you cannot live without, drop me a line. It is all good stuff…

First off, the basses (only 4?):

∙ Fender JV Serial 1957 Precision Bass re-issue

∙ Sadowsky NYC Ultra Vintage P and NYC Vintage Jazz

∙ Aria Pro II SB-900 (review to come later this month)

Electric Guitars:

∙ MIJ Fender 1962 re-issue Stratocaster

∙ Gibson Explorer – currently apart for a project. I can hardly wait to see it!

Acoustic Guitars:

∙ Martin D-18 Golden Era, Little Martin and Backpacker steel string

∙ Takamine F-349

∙ Kala solid mahogany soprano ukulele (on loan to a friend)


∙ Genz Benz Shuttle 6.0 12-T with extension cabinet

∙ Ampeg SVT Classic with an Ampeg 810 Classic Cabinet

∙ Ampeg V4B

∙ Fender Twin Reverb

∙ Fender Blues Junior III

∙ Fender Acoustasonic 30 DSP

Check in again on New Year’s Day to see what has made the cut. I am motivated to make some room, so you know it will be different!