Sunday, April 27, 2014

Recap of the 2nd Annual Guitar Center Musician’s Expo at the Long Beach Convention Center


On Saturday, March 29, 2014 there was an event at the Long Beach Convention Center that should have been of interest for Southern California musicians. The 2nd annual Guitar Center Musician’s Expo was an opportunity for us common folks to see a lot of the new gear that was introduced at the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim.

Guitar Center is the big daddy of music retailers, and I admire that they are trying new things despite the crushing debt they are staggering under and their general lack of direction. Through their relationships with their suppliers and vendors, they were able to feature equipment from 100 vendors, including Ernie Ball, Shure, Zildjian, Fender, QSC, Orange, Yamaha, Pioneer, American DJ and more. There were company representatives on hand to answer questions, and the equipment was out for the unwashed masses to touch and use. Most musicians are not able to go to NAMM, and I know they enjoy seeing and playing gear that is not even at dealers yet.

Besides the gear there were performances from bands and artists, including Rome, Dug Pinnick and GIlby Clarke, as well as artist and DJ workshops and plenty of demos. Highlights for me were getting to see some old friends and having the opportunity to play with the new QSC TouchMix and the new series of Yamaha MG series mixers.

There was equipment on sale at great prices, though it was hard to tell what was for sale and what wasn’t, and many of the vendors were not clear about what the actual sales process was. Also, there was almost no advertising for this event, and postcards mailed out to their local customers would have been a good idea.

Supposedly there were free tickets available at the local Guitar Centers, but none of them had any so I had to pay $5 to get in, as well as parking at the convention center. Considering that they were selling stuff it should have been free.

These minor gripes aside, I had a good time and appreciate that Guitar Center is able to hold this event right in my backyard, and I hope they can keep up the tradition.

I hope to see you there next year!


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

2014 Ibanez F Style M522S-BS Mandolin Review


Today we are looking at a classic-looking mandolin, the Ibanzez M522S-BS (catchy name, isn’t it?). This is probably the best value on the market for an affordable solid-wood mandolin.

Ibanez is a Japanese company that has been building guitars since 1957, and over the years I have played quite a few of their acoustic and electric offerings. I currently own one of the 1970s lawsuit-model mandolins, and this was my first opportunity to play ones of their modern mandolins, and it was an interesting experience.

This is instrument has the classic F (Florentine) styling and distinctive scroll on the body. It has a glossy sunburst finish over its solid spruce top and flamed maple body. It is equipped with a blindingly white body binding on the top, back and edges of the fretboard. Whoo!

The 13.75-inch scale neck is mahogany and it capped with a very flat rosewood fretboard. The 24 frets are nicely finished, though I had a hard time imagining them ever wearing out with the size and tension of these strings, not to mention the string height. The 1.18-inch wide plastic nut is well cut, and the pearloid block fretboard inlays are flush.

The headstock is neat with a flowerpot inlay and two sets of 4-in-line gold open-geared tuners with pearloid knobs. They match the gold tailpiece and the adjustment screws on the compensated rosewood bridge.

Overall this Ibanez is a handsome instrument, but I have a few nits to pick. The binding is crummy around the scrollwork, and it looks like they just did not spend enough time finishing it up, or that they forgot to take care of it at the factory. This is not what I expect from a new instrument, and it was not marked as a factory second. The finish is clear and well applied, but the coloration is gaudy and way too orange, and the effect is that it ends up looking kind of cheap. Also, the tailpiece is flimsy.

But worst of all, for a new instrument this mandolin came terribly set-up with a cheap set of strings. The action was sky-high and it was unplayable. But, after replacing the strings, adjusting the neck and lowering the bridge nearly all the way, it turned into a good player. It has plenty of volume and a pleasant (but thin) tone, but it is not really anything special and it would be a suitable starter instrument. By the way, it weighs 2 pounds, 4 ounces.

Ibanez does not make the M522S in their Japanese factory, instead it comes from one of the factories in China. Apparently there are some quality issues there as this one was not quite up to snuff, so I would be careful if I was looking for one of these, and would certainly not buy one sight unseen. I will go a step further and recommend to only purchase one of these from a good dealer so it can be properly set up before delivery. Of course a good set-up is essential for any mandolin.

Because it is imported from China, the Ibanez M522S very affordable for a solid-wood mandolin, with a list price of $449.99, and a street price of $299.99 (case not included). This is a great deal, but remember to be diligent while you are shopping to make sure you get a good one.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic Guitar DI and Preamp Review


If you have ever plugged you acoustic guitar on stage, you might just have run the signal straight into the PA or into an amp, but your sound was probably not all it could have been. You might think direct boxes (D.I. boxes) as a necessity only if you need to send an balanced signal to the sound board, but the L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic D.I. acoustic guitar D.I. and preamp will do this and a lot more. Besides the usual direct box functions it also acts as a preamplifier and equalizer.

L.R. Baggs was started by Lloyd Baggs, who started business in 1973 by renovating old guitars, and later graduated to building his own guitars. Things really took off for him when he started selling pickups and eventually the company started selling preamps, which include the Venue D.I. and Para D.I. I have used their Anthem and M80 pickups before, and really likes the tone I got out of them so trying out their preamps was not much of a stretch.

The Para D.I. is a nice-sized piece of work, measuring around 5.5 x 3.5 x 2 inches, and coming in at a bit under 1 pound, so it will fit in your guitar case pocket. This is a solid unit with stout metal case, and it has a quality feel that to it that gives the impression that it is not a disposable. There are no terrible wall warts with this one, as it can run on either a 9-volt battery or 48-volt phantom power (it will automatically switch over when phantom power is connected or disconnected). It is supposed to go for around 200 hours on the battery, and the battery is conveniently located in a tray that requires no tools to access. There is an LED that will start to flash when the battery is getting low.

On the front edge you will find the 1/4-inch input, a gain control, the effects loop, the ¼-inch output and an invert switch to change the polarity of the signal. On the top are the balance XLR D.I. out, a volume pot, and a 5-band EQ with tunable notch and sweepable midrange.

The two outputs are set so you can run the ¼-inch out to your stage amp and the XLR to the mixing board or a recording console. The gain control is adjustable from +2dB to +24dB so it can be matched up with most any type of active or passive pickup. One oddity of the Para D.I. is that the effects loop only has a single ¼-inch jack so a stereo Y cable is needed for this function (lame). The effects loop has its own preamp section that comes before the EQ and volume settings.

The phase inversion switch bears a little further explanation. This switch inverts the polarity of the input signal, so that the sound coming from the speakers is opposite the vibration of the guitar top, which minimizes the possibility of feedback. At least that is what the L.R. Baggs guys say. I like the theory, and it did seem to work when I intentionally induced feedback during my testing.

I can say the same for the notch control cuts selected frequencies that are most likely to cause feedback. The marked selections are G (98Hz), A (110Hz), D (150Hz) and B (247Hz). So, the idea is to turn this knob until feedback is at its worst, and then to turn the corresponding EQ knob down until feedback goes away.

In reality, this all works out well. The controls are easy to use (once you read the instructions and the knobs have a quality feel. The Para D.I. does the basic DI stuff handily, which consists of making a low-impedance balanced signal out of your guitar’s high-impedance unbalanced signal. It has a Class A FET front end so it is amazingly quiet but still has a naturally warm sound. While it is touted as being live sound equipment, if you are on a budget it would work well in the studio too.

But it does a lot more than this and it ends up being a kick-butt preamplifer too. I tested it on my two workhorse acoustics: my Martin D-18GE with a K7K Pure Mini and a Takamine EF341SC equipped with the factory electronics package. This box is a godsend for the Martin (which no on-board EQ), and improved the tone of the Takamine, which I have always been satisfied by doing most of the adjustments with the onboard EQ/preamp.

The output level of these two guitars is very different, and the gain control evened them out nicely. I already talked about feedback control, which is very good, but the sweepable mid is where most of the magic happened for me. I was able to back out harshness that I had trouble taming before, and ended up with a huge and very sweet tone. I was also able to get rid of some unwanted boominess by cutting the lows. And it does all of this with no hiss, hum or distortion!

A lot of thought went into setting this unit up and every feature is designed to bring the most out of your acoustic guitar. I would be comfortable leaving the acoustic amplifier at home and going solely plugged into the board (as long as I trust the sound guy).

Though the Para D.I. is made (and voiced) for acoustic guitar, just for grins I tried it out on other piezo-equipped instruments, including a uke, a mandolin and my friend’s electric violin and it worked very well with these too. If you are in a jam this unit would certainly be good enough to get one of these plugged into your PA.

One last thing: this unit is made in the U.S., just in case you were wondering, which makes the price even more attractive.

The L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic D.I. is a great value, and if you are doing any live work with your acoustic on stage, in coffee shops or at church, it might just be your bag. It is worth the $169 street price (list price $249), and it comes with a one-year warranty. Check one out if you get the chance!


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Yamaha DSR112 Powered Speaker Review


When it comes to PA systems, Yamaha has always been a strong contender. They have found their niche in the middle of the road, selling quality products at reasonable prices, and bridging the gap between high-dollar equipment and low-rent crap that is more of a hassle than it is worth. I am a fan, owing a half dozen Yamaha mixing boards, as well as the fine DSR112 powered speakers that we are looking at today.

The Yamaha DSR112 speakers are a miracle of modern engineering and technology, combining the speaker and amplifier into a tidy and affordable package. These are the smallest cabinets in the DSR line-up, measuring 26” by 15” by 15” and weighing a stout 47 pounds each, and they have a neat triangular shape to the rear so they work well for floor monitors. They are made of solid wood (no plastic) and are coated with black Line-X that appears to be indestructible. The speaker grills are made of black powdercoated 16 gauge steel. There is a standard 35mm pole socket on the bottom as well as three M10 threaded mounts in case you want to hang them from a truss or ceiling.

Each loudspeaker includes two integrated power amps (850 watts for the woofer and 450 watts for the tweeter). The amplifiers are class D (efficient, cheap and small), and run cool enough that no fan is needed. The DSR112 is loaded up with a 12-inch neodymium magnet speaker with a 3-inch voice coil, and 2-inch titanium diaphragm tweeter (also with a neo magnet). This results in a frequency response of 55Hz to 20kHz. When cranked up they are capable of punching an astonishing SPL of 134dB. Ouch! By the way, the crossover is fixed at 1.7kHz.

As far as hooking these cabinets, it is pretty simple with XLR and ¼-inch inputs and an XLR out. Other things to be found on the back panel are a level control knob, a line/mic switch, plus HPF and D-CONTOUR switches (more on this below). There are no RCA jacks, which is something that QSC managed to include on their K and KW series speakers. An IEC-spec power cable socket specced for this speaker, which appears to be the standard for all of the powered speakers I see on the market.

Yamaha integrated some user-friendly basic digital processing controls into their DSR-series speakers, including HPF and D-CONTOUR. HPF is a high-pass filter cuts frequencies below 120Hz, so you would only use this if a subwoofer was hooked up or if a microphone was directly plugged into the speaker. D-CONTOUR boosts high and low frequencies based on volume with the purpose to make for a more listenable experience. Both of these features have ON/OFF switches, and I rarely use the HPF, but do find that the D-CONTOUR give a neat disco/club effect.

These specs and features are all first rate, and they all come together in the real world as a package that really works. The Yamaha DSR112 speakers have a huge sound, and blow away my K12s, both with volume and tone (which is more natural and meaty). Despite their huge volume capabilities they are still clear and punchy, and can be louder than any guitarist I have found. They are very even across the frequency range, and I have not found any hot spots. This is a winning combination!

I have very little to complain about with the DSR speakers. I wish that there were RCA jack inputs so I could hook an iPod directly up to the speakers for casual use, and a ¼-inch out would be a handy feature too. Other than that I am happy with these just the way they came from the factory.

Yamaha does sell a matching subwoofer, the DSR 118W, but I have not had a chance to try one yet. Stay tuned…

The Yamaha DSR112 active loudspeakers are great performers and are priced competitively with similar products from JBL and QCS. They have a list price of $1499 each, which translates to a street price of $999, which includes a 5-year warranty. Also, there are some of these on clearance right now, so you might be able to knock a few hundred bucks more off. Check them out if you get the chance!


Friday, April 18, 2014

1977 Takamine F360 Acoustic Guitar Review


Over the years I have owned and played plenty of Japanese-made Takamine acoustic guitars and have found nothing to gripe about with their craftsmanship, playability or tone.

Takamine is a Japanese guitar maker that has been in business for over 50 years now. They have started building guitars in other countries, but all of their high-end guitars still come from the land of the rising sun. Don’t sniff at their products and say that imports are junk, because they build some fantastic acoustic and acoustic-electric steel string guitars. By the way, the company is named after Mount Takamine in the Gifu Prefecture of Japan.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this company became famous (or notorious) for building righteous Martin guitar copies that earned them a strongly-worded memo from the Martin legal department. Today we are looking at one of these animals: a 1977 F-360.

The F-360 is a shameless copy of the Martin D-28, their iconic dreadnought. They went whole-hog on their reproduction, with using Martin’s headstock shape and logo script. I can see why Martin was upset, particularly when you consider that this is a nice guitar, and surely provided unwanted competition for a fraction of the price. This would be a lawsuit guitar, if a lawsuit had ever been filed.

The body has the traditional dreadnought size and shape, with 14 frets free from the body. This one has a laminated rosewood body and back, and a laminated spruce top, as there is no S or SS in the model name, which is usually (but not always) the designation of a solid wood instrument. Who knows, and actually who cares at this point? It is a nice-sounding guitar.

Like the Martin D-28 the body has a multi-ply binding around the top and a simple black binding around the back while the neck is not bound at all. The rosette is elegant, and combined with the black pickguard and black-painted bridge it fits in well with the visual theme of the guitar.

The mahogany neck has its original 20 chunky frets, and they are skillfully sunk into the rosewood fretboard. The peghead has chrome-plated sealed tuners, probably made by Gotoh. This Takamine shares the D-28’s 1 11/16-inch nut, and 25 ¼-inch scale. The fretboard is a bit more curvy with a 12-inch radius, instead of 16-inch.

The condition of this F-360 is ok, especially for a 37 year old guitar. There is very little wear to the original frets, no cracks or evidence of repairs, but plenty of dings and chips here and there. It has been around the block a few times!

After a quick set-up with new medium gauge strings, I have to say that this Takamine is really a peach. It is not the loudest dreadnought I have ever owned, but I never expected that going into this deal. It has a sweet and mellow tone that is tolerant of the occasional mis-fretted note, and the volume is nicely balanced from string to string.

The frets are still level, and it is a very easy-playing guitar with no fret buzz. It is not the greatest fingerstyle guitar, but for the basic stuff I am using it for, it is a fabulous guitar. It would be a terrific instrument for a beginner, for sure. I am holding onto this as a guitar to loan to friends that are considering taking up the instrument. By the way, it weighs in at around 4 pounds, 10 ounces, in case that makes a difference to you.

If you are looking for one of these guitars, remember that they are over 30 years old now, so you should look it over carefully or have a luthier check it out. Just look for the usual stuff: bridge lift, cracks, evidence of previous repairs, and fret wear.

Compared to other new guitars on the market, you get a lot of performance for the money on this one. Finding a used Takamine F-360 is not terribly difficult, and they are still very reasonably priced, at around $350 to $450 for a nice example, which is 25% of what you would pay for a playable D-18. If you need a durable budget acoustic, you might want to track one down!


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ESP LTD Deluxe EC-1000 Electric Guitar Review


I have not had very many nice things to say about the Les Paul model guitars that have been coming out of Gibson’s Nashville factory in recent years. I think that a brand new guitar that costs thousands of dollars should have level frets and a playable neck right out of the box, which is something they are unable to do. Fortunately there are companies that are building very good alternatives for a lot less money, such as ESP’s LTD Deluxe EC-1000.

There have not been many legitimate domestic competitors to the Les Paul, and the best copies have always come from Japanese companies such as Tokai, Yamaha and Ibanez. ESP got into the game after all the lawsuits, so their guitars have a different enough appearance that they are not going to get into trouble with Gibson’s legal team, but they hit very close to the mark of what a real Les Paul should be.

ESP makes what may be the finest production guitars on the planet, but with Japanese labor and the vagaries of the Yen, you are going to pay a premium to get one of their new guitars slung around your neck. This is where their LTD series come in, as the models are very similar but are assembled outside of the land of the rising sun (Korea), where workers do not get paid as much. Obviously the attention to detail will not be as good, but the LTD instruments are still very good.

The LTD Deluxe EC-1000 maintains a Les Paul-like body shape with a sharper cutaway, and a headstock design that will not get them into trouble. They do not come with a tremolo, and come in two flavors: a more traditional Sunburst model with Seymour Duncan pickups or a metal monster with active EMG pickups.

The bodies on these instruments are made of mahogany, and are bound, and the models transparent finishes have figured maple tops and abalone purfling around the edges. These guitars are surprisingly light (under 9 pounds), and none of them come with a pickguard. Mounted to the body is a Tonepros locking bridge and tailpiece, which will be black, gold or chrome, depending on the color of the guitar. The ESP website shows a model with a locking tremolo, but I have never seen one in person and wonder if they really exist.

The set mahogany neck is wonderful, with a thin U profile. It has the traditional Les Paul scale length of 24.75 inches, but ESP uses 24 (instead of 22) and they hammered in extra jumbo wire. The bigger cutaway makes it easier to reach those extra frets (for those of you who use such things). The fretboard is rosewood (or ebony on vintage black), which is a bonus since Gibson is now using some sort of stained maple. There are really nice mother of pearl inlays, with the model number embedded at the 12th fret marker. The nut width is 42mm, which is tad skinnier than the 43mm found on most Les Pauls. The headstock is equipped with ESP locking tuners that look like Sperzels, again in gold, black or chrome.

As I said earlier, you can choose a two totally different flavors of electronics. The Seymour Duncan equipped instruments get an SH-4 at the bridge position (like a JB) and an SH-1 at the neck (think 59 PAF Style). The EMG guitars get an 81 at the bridge and a 60 at the neck. Either way the controls are set up the same with two volume controls, a tone knob and a three-way selector switch. I prefer this to the Les Paul 4-knob design.

I have had the opportunity to play both versions of this guitar and came away impressed. I could find no visible difference in quality between these Korean-made guitars and the ones that come from ESP’s Japanese shops. The fretwork is very good, and fit and finish are first-rate. Both of these guitars came out of the box with good set-ups and only required tuning before getting down to business.

The necks on these instruments have a very fast feel, and are comfortable for extended playing periods. The extra reach is nice if access if the upper frets are needed, and these guitars hang well from a strap with no neck dive despite their lighter weight. I did not miss having a tremolo, though it is something that I do not use terribly often anyway. Since there is no whammy bar the locking tuners are not a necessity, but they sure make string changes quicker!

As they always are, the EMGs are as clear as a bell with tons of output. These pickups are always a love them or hate them proposition, and I love the way they sound so they worked out fine. Getting an EC-1000 set-up with these makes for the perfect heavy hard rock/metal guitar. The Duncans are warmer and make all of the appropriate classic rock and blues sounds.

Either version of this guitar is a winner, so just pick whichever one you need for task at hand and you will not be sorry. The ESP LTD Deluxe EC-1000 will do anything a Les Paul will do for less than half the price. These instruments have a list price of $1141 and a street price of $799 which includes a one-year warranty and no case. For the money you are not going to find a better rock guitar. Check one out and see for yourself!


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Musical Theatre West Production of ‘s Wonderful at the Carpenter Center


As part of their 61st season, Musical Theatre West included ‘s Wonderful, which is a show I had never heard of (I had heard of the Gershwin song), so I was looking forward to seeing what they had in store for their loyal audience. Unfortunately I came away with mixed feelings after seeing their matinee show last Sunday.

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking.

’s Wonderful is based on the music of show business legends George and Ira Gershwin, and their estate approved the production of the show which includes 40 of their fabulous songs crammed into five mini-musicals. Each of these vignettes explores a different era of the 20th century, but none of them terribly well, which we will get into a little later. The show is the brainchild of Ray Roderick, who wrote it and has directed it around the country, including these shows for Musical Theatre West.

As far as musicals go, this has to be one of the easier ones to put on, especially because it has such a small cast with only five actors and two dance extras. But, the actors are all top-shelf performers, with veterans Rebecca Johnson, Damon Kirsche, Ashley Fox Linton, Jeff Skowron, and Rebecca Spencer each getting the opportunity to take a lead. All of them have been in Musical Theatre West productions before and they are all good singers and actors that come off well in leading or supporting roles.

Fortunately they are all good dancers, as the choreography was outstanding, making good use of the stage and the sparse elements available to them. This is thanks to Charlie Williams who represents the best of the next generation of choreographers,and he is the one to watch.

The sets are minimal, with small elements coming on and off the stage for each new act, and a large video screen in the background that adds visual elements that are mostly appropriate for the on-stage action. The center piece of the show is the on-stage seven-piece orchestra, which is led by the uber-capable Musical Director/pianist Bret Simmons. The stage and bandstand were put together under the direction of Kevin Clowes, with lighting by Jeff Warner. Even though there are only five actors, there are plenty of costume changes, and Deborah Roberts did a fine job of capturing the spirit of five different decades. The Barry Manilow Cuban outfit and the lederhosen are a tad tacky, though, enough so that I felt embarrassed for Skowron, who had to wear them.

It was refreshing to have the orchestra on stage so the audience can have the opportunity to see how hard they are working, and it is a small ensemble with a pianist, one violin, a double bass, a drummer, a trombone, a trumpet and a woodwind player. The overall effect was not reduced by having only seven musicians, and they were up to the task of keeping the action moving throughout. The sound (under the direction of Brian Hsieh) was well-done for the orchestra, but there were far too many missed cues on the vocals when the microphones were not turned up in time.

With no sets everything was focused on the individual actors, so this is a show that is much better to see up close. The Carpenter is a big theater and the folks in the back missed out on a lot. Suckers!

So if the songwriting, singing, dancing, choreography and music were great, that means that there is only one big thing to gripe about, and that is the show itself. It is hard to know where to start.

For starters, the premise is weak. It is the height of laziness to come up with a “new” musical where all of the songs are culled from other shows. Don’t get me wrong – they are all very good songs, but each one has a history and a place in the musical theatre world and this is not it. I am not fond of paying to watch one man’s idea of the perfect Gershwin iTunes mix.

Secondly, the vignettes are cartoonish and are expected to do too much in the short time allotted, not to mention that the stories are so thin that the audience will poke holes through them while they are unfolding. Don’t get me started on the modern day act with the premise of a woman giving her grandson an iPod full of Gershwin hits that the cast then performs. Good songs are not enough to carry this one, and it was like being served a plate of meat without the rest of the meal. It was not very satisfying, and I expect better from Musical Theatre West.

In mitigation, this show would be good for someone who has never heard of the Gershwins so that they could experience their magical collaboration.

There is one last minor complaint before I wrap this up and that is that all of the performers deserve recognition in the program, not just the leads. The musicians and the two extra dancers (Annie Hinskton and Tyler Logan) received no credit, and that is just wrong. It does not take up that much space in the program, and what if their parents come to see the show? For shame…

If you decide to head out to see ’s Wonderful, it is playing through this weekend (closing on April 20), and seats are still available. Remember what I said about the size of the theatre and get seats as close to the front as you can.

Musical Theatre West’s 2013-2014 season only has one show left, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast from July 11 to 17. And, next season is really looking up with Once, Big Fish, Les Miserables and South Pacific on tap. Check out their website at for details about tickets and packages.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Fabrizio Poggi & Chicken Mambo – Spirit of Mercy, a Collection Album Review

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the May 2, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Fabrizio Poggi & Chicken Mambo – Spirit of Mercy, a Collection

Ultra Sound Records

14 tracks / 57:18

A friend of mine is writing a book about the history of the harmonica in music, and when I mentioned I was writing a review of a new CD from Fabrizio Poggi, he nodded his head and smiled. He allowed that he was a fan of Mr. Poggi, and that his skills are certainly top notch, but that his feel for the instrument and his respect for its role in music is what really sets him apart. It turns out that Fabrizio has also written books on the history of folk harmonica, which is quite a coincidence. Maybe I should introduce them…

Fabrizio Poggi has played with what seems like every notable blues performer that has been active over the past few decades. He has released fifteen albums (if I counted them right), and though he is based out of Italy, many of them were recorded in the United States. Two of his more spiritual efforts have been 2008’s Mercy and 2010’s Spirit & Freedom; his latest album, Spirit of Mercy, is a compilation of the highlights from these two albums, with a few alternate takes. This ends up being a neat combination of blues and spiritual tunes.

Not surprisingly, Fabrizio takes care of the harmonica chores, as well as many of the vocals – but keep in mind there are plenty of featured artists sharing this role. Joining him are Roberto Re on bass, Stefano Bertolotti on the skins, Bobby Sacchi on accordion and vocals, and the trio of Maurizio Fassino, Gianfranco Scala and Francesco Garolfi on guitars and vocals. You will find that these are all first-call artists, and there is not a missed cue or clunker note on this CD.

The other thing you will find is that although Poggi is a harmonica virtuoso, this is not a harmonica album: it is all about the lyrics, as is befitting of a spiritual work. This is brought home by songs such as “I Heard the Angels Singin’” which features none other than Eric Bibb (who recorded this song back in 2001) and the inimitable Garth Hudson (formerly of The Band) on the keyboards. Their great vocal harmonies, combined with Hudson’s spooky keys and Fabrizio’s harmonica gives this song a wonderful Louisiana feel. Hudson appears on two other tracks, including the brief opener, “Mercy” and “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.”

There are plenty of other guest artists on this collection, including Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez on “Jesus on the Mainline.” This is a live track, and there is a lot of great stuff going on in this countrified blues song. An uncredited female vocalist tears this song apart as she harmonizes so well with Fabrizio. Flaco is given plenty of room to work and he shows exactly why he is a living legend of the squeeze box. If this song is any indication of what Poggi’s live show is like, I will have to try to see one of his live shows some time.

Another featured artist is one of my favorite singer/harmonica players, Rob Paparozzi, who appears on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” He trades vocals and harmonica licks with Poggi and it is great to see that Fabrizio is willing to share his stage with so many great talents.

My favorite tune is the most intimate song in the collection, “Precious Lord,” which highlights Fabrizio’s emotionally wrought vocals over a base of beautifully-picked acoustic guitar. He uses his harp well too, and this song is so well recorded that all of these elements come together perfectly. Poggi also does a mean rendition of “Amazing Grace” on his harp, with the sound of a hammer driving nails into a cross in the background. We get to see a piece of the man’s soul here.

I admire the cleverness that Fabrizio showed by taking the best parts of two good albums, and combining them into Spirit of Mercy. Though this work is a fine example of harmonica talent, the bigger story is the excellent cross section of blues and blues-based spiritual music that is found within. If you do not have any Fabrizio Poggi albums yet, listening to this one would be a great way to experience his music, and possibly to start your own collection of his catalog. Check it out!


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Nash PB-63 Bass Guitar Review


Today we are looking at a very nice Precision Bass copy: a Bill Nash built PB-63. I was recently looking for a back-up P Bass, and this one definitely fit the bill and there is certainly not much to dislike about it.

Bill Nash has been assembling vintage-style guitars since 2001, and has gained a lot of respect and a faithful following because he builds guitars that play very well and sound incredible. All of his instruments received the relic treatment, so you will never have to worry about scratching one.

By the way, Bill Nash initials and dates the headstock on each guitar they build, and writes the serial number on the tip of the headstock. And the serial number convention is something I have not seen before. The first two letters of the serial number denote which dealer the guitar was shipped to. In this case the writing is sloppy, so I have no idea what dealer it was originally shipped to.

From its specifications, this PB-63 is a fairly faithful reproduction of a 1963 Fender Precision Bass. It has a three-tone sunburst nitrocellulose lacquer finish and a dead-on accurate tortoise shell pickguard (since changed to black). The maple neck has a C shape and a 10-inch radius rosewood fretboard with a 1 5/8-inch width Graphtech Tusq nut. They installed tall Dunlop 6105 frets on this one, which is a departure from the early 1960s standard.

The hardware is also true to the theme, with Kluson-style reverse tuners and a serrated-saddle bridge. Nash went with Jason Lollar pickups, which I think are the best choice for a P-bass these days. There is no pre-amplifier, just the expected volume/volume/tone pots. By the way, the pots are 250K CTS, and they included a Sprague Orange Drop capacitor in the circuit. Yay!

And all of these fabulous things were put together very well by the folks over at Nash Guitars. The craftsmanship is very good, with a comfortable neck and great fretwork. For those that complains that these are parts guitars, I say go buy a bag full of parts and see if you can do this good of a job. I have not found any dead spots, and the Lollar pickups sound very rich. It does not hurt that it is relatively light, coming in at 8 pounds, 13 ounces.

This is one of the best Precision Basses I have ever owned, and it should be for a street price of around $1900.

As with all Nash guitars, I am a little hung up on the way this one looks. Even though this one is described as having light aging, I think the relic process goes a little too far -- I guess I do not have to worry about scratching it. Also, there are no bridge cover or pickup cover holes drilled in the bass, which is an oversight for a 1960s Fender replica. If that is all I have to complain about, they must have done a good job!

If you have not had the opportunity to play a Bill Nash guitar or bass, I recommend you give one a shot. It may be the closest you will get to ever owning a pre-CBS Fender.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Scott Ramminger – Advice from a Father to a Son Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the May 16, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Scott Ramminger – Advice from a Father to a Son

Arbor Lane Music

10 tracks / 48:12

The culture and vibe of Washington D.C. and New Orleans are worlds apart, but Scott Ramminger thrives in both environments as a vocalist and master of the saxophone. This point is proven by his new album, Advice From a Father to a Son, which was recorded in both cities with a little help from Nashville.

Scott spent his youth in Hunstville, Alabama but has since transplanted to the nation’s capital. No matter where he lives, he seems to carry New Orleans in his soul, and his jazz / blues sound has a decidedly Louisiana bent to it. Crawstickers, his first album (and a fantastic title) is very well regarded so I had high expectations for this follow-up effort. I did not come away disappointed.

Advice From a Father to a Son is an ambitious work, with ten original tracks written by Ramminger and not a Muddy Waters cover in sight. Though it was recorded in two cities with different personnel, the set list is organized so it is easy to follow (even for me). The first seven tracks were recorded in NOLA with a core band of Shane Theriot on guitar, George Porter Jr. on bass, Johnny Vidacovich on drums and the marvelous David Torkanowsky on keys. The last three tracks were cut in D.C. with Barry Hart on drums, Jay Turner on bass, Dave Chappell (no, not that one) on guitar and Tommy Lepson on the organ. Pitching in with lovely vocals on many of the tracks are Nashville’s McCrary sisters, Regina, Ann and Alfreda. These talented women tie the two parts of the album together and serve to give it more of a sense of continuity.

His New Orleans band is the most that anyone could hope to play with. Torkanowsky is possibly the best piano man in the Crescent City, and the other three men are just as talented. They slide effortlessly through multiple genres, including blues, rock and roll, funk, and even a little Latin flair. They start Advice From a Father to a Son with “I Really Love Your Smile,” an ode to Ramminger’s wife, Claire. The piano intro sets the listener up for a good time right out of the gate. Vidacovich has mastered the art of playing the drums without overplaying, and he and Turner are right in the pocket the whole time. The home-spun lyrics are playful and the rhymes are clever, making the whole song come together.

From this rousing bar room romp they change directions with Theriot’s funky and syncopated guitar action in “Funkier Than Him.” This is also the first chance to hear the McCrary sisters, who are a treasure of American music. They sang with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, you know…

On “This Town’s Seen the Last of Me,” Nashville’s Etta Britt sings a fun rock duet with Scott, and he plays a pretty mean sax too. This is a fabulous party tune, for sure. Britt also sings with him on the title track, and “Advice From a Father to a Son” turns about to be more playful than the title implies. It certainly is full of helpful hints, which any of us would do well to heed. “Don’t be that grumpy guy in your workplace, who always seems to wear a frown.” Indeed.

The standout tracks from Ramminger’s New Orleans sessions are “The Other Man’s Shoes” with a heavy dose of Regina McCrary’s dead sexy voice, and “I’ve Got a Funny Feeling.” The lyrics are the stars here: whether showing empathy for one’s fellow man or that sinking feeling that your partner is stepping out on you, they really hit close to the heart. His growly New Orleans voice fits well with these musically simpler ballads, too.

The Washington D.C. sessions end up with a different sound, which is not a surprise as it has a different backing band. It is a tough act to follow the New Orleans dream team, but these guys do a good job. These three tracks each have a unique sound, starting with “More Than One Flavor,” which has a more urban sound and features Vince McCool on the trumpet. His horn mixes nicely with Ramminger’s sax, and Lepson does a fine job on the organ.

His keys also lend “Must be True” a cool gospel feel, though the lyrics are certainly more temporal than eternal. And the album ends with “Sometime You Race the Devil,” a bit of reggae-infused blues. McCool comes back for this one, joined by Jim McFalls on the trombone and this song ends up being a really fun way to finish things up.

Advice From a Father to a Son is very good, and it is evident that Scott Ramminger has been putting in a lot of quality time at the studio. I respect that he did not feel the need to dominate his songs with saxophone, but instead added bits of it here and there as needed. I am curious to see where he goes next, and if we are going to get more of a Washington D.C.-influenced album, or if he will stick closer to his Louisiana roots. Either way, it will surely be something good!


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Aguilar GS 112 Bass Speaker Cabinet Review


I recently re-vamped my main bass amplification system, and decided to use a pair of Aguilar GS 112 speaker cabinets with my Genz Benz Shuttle 9.2, and it is turned out to be a match made in heaven.

Aguilar Amplifiers was founded in New York City by Alex Aguilar and Dave Boonshoft in 1995. Dave was a studio musician on bass, of course) and Alex was an electronics guru that designed Roger Sadowsky’s now legendary bass pre-amplifier. They started by building pre-amplifiers, then moved on to amplifiers and speaker cabinets. Alex sold his share of the company to Boonshoft in 2004, and Dave continues to run the show. The company’s products are very well-regarded and are a staple of many gigging bassists’ arsenals.

The GS 112 is available either with a tweeter or without (I have one of each), and they are a neat piece of work. The cabinet is made of carpeted 7-ply Philippine mahogany and is loaded up with a single 12-inch speaker that has a cast frame and a 56-ounce magnet (3 ½ pounds!). The GS is not terribly coming in around 42 pounds, and the single spring-loaded handle on the side is sufficient for a beefy boy like me to haul it around with. The whole thing measures 19 x 14 x 18 inches, and there are plastic interlocking protectors on each corner.

The speaker is rated for 300W (@ 8 ohms), and the phenolic tweeter has an integrated phase plug. Round back there is a Neutrik Speakon connector as well as two ¼-inch jacks. On models with a tweeter there is an adjustment knob to set the level.

I first tried out the Aguilar GS 112 cabinets with my Genz Benz Shuttle 9.2, and came away very impressed. They do a surprisingly good job on the lows (frequency response spec is 42Hz to 16kHz), and the overall tone was clean but still very thick and punchy. In this case when I say “clean” I do not mean sterile, but instead that there was very good note definition.

As I said earlier, these cabinets are rated for 300W, and thought they are not as efficient as some (95dB) they are still very very loud. Putting two of them together is enough for any gig I will ever do, and if I ever needed more power the signal would need to go through the PA anyway. Have the tweeter on only one speaker worked well, and I placed that speaker on top so I could hear the highs better.

The second combination I tried was with both speakers on the floor and my old Ampeg V4B sitting on top. I dialed the tweeter all the way back, and an acquaintance of mine put the set-up through its paces with his upright as well as his old P bass. He is an old-school blues and rock guy, and the results were monstrous, with a very organic sound and tone galore. It was pretty perfect, which is all anyone could hope for.

As far as other details, they are easy to lug around and set up, and there is only two things that I do not care for with them. I wish that there were two Speakon connectors on the back so that they can be hooked up in series. There are two ¼-inch jacks, and I do not know why they could not go the extra mile and do the same with the Neutrik parts. Also, I am not a fan of carpeted cabinets as the covering pills up and collects all kinds of fuzz and junk as time goes on. That’s it!

So, these cabinets are at the top of my list, and I would wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone that is looking for a new 1x12 speaker.

The Aguilar GS 112 is not cheap, with a list price of $799 and a street price of $599, but it is an incredible speaker and is good value for the money. Plus, it comes with a 3-year limited warranty if you buy it new. Check one (or two) out if you get the chance!


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2nd Quarter of 2014 Inventory Update

Hi there!

Time flies by, and it is time again for the quarterly update of what is stacked up around my studio these days. Things have gotten crowded over the past few months, so there are definitely a few things that I can move along to someone else. If you see anything here that you cannot live without, drop me a line. It is all good stuff…

First off, the basses (back in the saddle, baby!):

∙ Sadowsky NYC Ultra Vintage P, NYC P/J, and NYC Standard J

∙ Nash JB-63 and PB-63

∙ Ernie Ball MusicMan Stingray 4H, Stingray 5H, and Bongo 4H

∙ Kubicki Ex Factor

∙ Spector NS-2A

∙ Epiphone Jack Casady Signature Model in Silverburst

∙ Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI

Electric Guitars:

∙ MIJ Fender 1962 re-issue Stratocaster

∙ 1960s Teisco Del Rey ET-220

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

Acoustic Guitars:

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

∙ Takamine F360 and F369

∙ Two Ibanez mandolins

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


∙ Ampeg V4B

∙ Orange Micro Terror with Orange 1/8 Cabinet (a review is on its way)

∙ Genz Benz Shuttle 9.2 with Aguilar GS112 and GS112NT Cabinets

∙ Fender Twin Reverb

∙ Fender Acoustasonic 30 DSP

Check in again on the first of June to see what is still around. As always, you know it will be different!