Saturday, June 28, 2014

1994 Fender Japan Telecaster TL52-80SPL Keith Richards Micawber Model


Today we are looking at another fine example of the wonderful instruments that come from Fender’s Japanese subsidiary. And, like many of them, it is not imported to the United States.

It is a super-rare TL52-80SPL '52 Reissue Telecaster that was crafted by Fender Japan Custom Shop. Hallelujah, it is a Keith Richards signature Micawber model! Buying one of these would save a fellow a lot of trouble if he is in a Rolling Stones tribute band. This one was built in 1994, in case you are keeping score at home.

This guitar is expertly crafted with a white ash body that is sprayed with a light Butterscotch Blonde finish, so that the grain shines through. In real life, the finish is a bit lighter than the US Made ‘52 re-issues. It is at least a shade or two lighter, and is closer to the way the finishes came from the factory in the early 50s. It comes with a single-ply flat black pickguard.

The neck has a chunky C profile with a deep nitro tint, and vintage frets. A 50’s type spaghetti logo is used on the headstock. Gotoh tuners are used on these Fender Japan Custom Shop models for their stability, but unfortunately do not fit the theme of this guitar. A four-bolt F-stamped plate holds the neck to the body.

The bridge is machined from a block of brass, with six solid brass saddles (one more than Keith’s). It makes a huge difference in the tone of the guitar. If you want to be Keith, you are going to have to lose one of those strings, you know.

This SPL model comes with a Fender humbucker at the neck and a traditional vintage single coil at the bridge. I have heard from my guitar sources in Japan that the pickup used in the neck position is actually a Gibson PAF '57 reissue humbucker. I cannot verify this, but it looks like one too. It certainly has that Gibson humbucker sound.

The craftsmanship on this guitar was probably outstanding when it was new, but 20 years of hard use have given it a well-worn vintage vibe. As it is, the original frets are still good, and it is a marvelous playing guitar that sounds amazing.

Too bad that you will never see one of these at your local Guitar Center.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review of Green Day’s American Idiot at the Pantages Theatre


I think that one of the best popular albums of the past decade is Green Day’s American Idiot. This 2004 album is musically perfect, and has great lyrics and a very good theme throughout. I am not the only one that likes the album – over 10 million copies were sold and it won a Grammy for Best Rock Album of 2005. In 2010 it was adapted to a stage musical that earned two Tony awards and great reviews, but I never got the chance to see it on Broadway. So, when the touring company made its stop at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood last month, we had to stop in to see what it was all about.

The Pantages has been a Hollywood cultural icon since it opened in 1930. It started as a vaudeville theatre, but it has hosted all manner of shows, operated as a movie theatre, and was even the home of the Academy Award Ceremonies for 10 years. Rumor has it that when Howard Hughes owned the theatre he had his offices on the second floor. Creepy. Anyway, the theatre had a $10 million renovation in 2000, and it is still in marvelous condition. For this show we had seats around the middle of the orchestra section, and were able to see and hear everything well. It is a lovely place to see a show, with the added bonus of easy parking (for $10) and plentiful places to dine before or after the show. It is certainly worth the drive!

The plot of American Idiot is relevant to today’s disaffected youth. It is the story of three young men, and how they deal with the pressures of living in the post-911 United States. The audience gets to watch them grow up as they take different paths to find themselves, and it is a mesmerizing event.

This is a wonderfully written show, with music Green Day, lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong and a book by Armstrong and Michael Mayer, and this rock opera translates well to the stage. There is very little dialogue that is not sung, but the story still comes across loud and clear and it has a powerful message that clearly shows the divide between generations.

The 2014 version of American Idiot was a touring production that made stops throughout the United States, finishing up on May 25. The creative staff did a wonderful job, with Michael Mayer taking the directorial role, Steven Hoggett as choreographer, Christine Jones with set design, Kevin Adams with the lighting, and musical supervision by Tom Kitt. Between them they have won plenty of Tonys and a Pulitzer, so you know they were more than capable of creating a very tight show.

There are only seven main roles in the musical, with Jared Nepute, Casey O’Farrell and Dan Tracy taking the leads. After the show got rolling, they split the spotlight as the audience learned about the separate paths they were taking. Each of them has good rock chops, which is good considering the source material. The other four main characters and the ten members of the ensemble were responsible for maintaining the momentum and hitting their energetic dance cues, and they all did well (it was the end of the tour, so they had plenty of time to figure it out). By the way, as a middle-aged guy, it was striking how young the entire cast is.

Instead of a traditional orchestra in the pit, the music was presented on the stage by a five-piece rock band with the musical director, Evan Jay Newman, on keys, David Abrams and Diego Rojas on guitars, Josh Sebo on bass and Ben Marino on drums. Theses talented professionals set the mood, and there were no miscues or odd dynamics that drew away from the onstage action.

American Idiot’s sets are amazing and are definitely worthy of a Tony. Most striking were the arrays of video monitors that either played synchronized or random images to great effect. The rest of the sets were clever repurposed throughout, and the timing of the flyaways and on and off stage movements were impressive. Just seeing this was worth the price of admission -- it was a lot more complicated than most modern musical productions.

The lighting was well-done and cemented the mood for many of the scenes. And for a change I have nothing to complain about in the sound department. It was well-mixed, and I had no trouble focusing on and differentiating the music or vocals.

So, the plot was smart, the acting, singing, and dancing were excellent, and the music was tremendously popular even before the musical came out. What is not to like? When American Idiot comes around again, I heartily recommend that you get out see it. There is no doubt that they will put together another tour, as it was very successful this time around.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

2011 Ernie Ball MusicMan Stingray Bass Review

Hi there!

It is no secret that I am a big fan of the MusicMan Stingray bass and it seems like I always have one around the house because I think they are the best bolt-neck production basses on the market. So, this seems like a good opportunity to look over the 2011 Stingray that I recently picked up.

The Stingray bass was designed by Leo Fender and Tom Walker, and it was introduced in 1976. It was originally available only as a 4-string with a single humbucker pickup, a two band equalizer, and active electronics. This was one of the earliest productions basses with an active pre-amplifier, if not the first. This gave it more output and a more aggressive sound than the competition.

Ever since Ernie Ball bought the MusicMan brand in the 1980s, there has been a constant improvement in features and options available for the Stingray, including: contoured bodies, improved neck joints, better truss rod ergonomics, and more than enough electronics and pickup configurations.

But I am a simple man, and I still prefer a plain-old Stingray with a single humbucker pickup and the 2-band or 3-band (like this one) equalizer. And that is why this bass appeals to me so much, because it is pretty close to the way it was originally intended to be.

As I said before, this Stingray was built in 2011, and it is finished in a gorgeous Black Cherryburst poly. And I must say that Ernie Ball is spraying one the most beautiful fade finishes on the planet these days. This one has a contoured ash body with a six-bolt neck joint (for extra special sturdiness and sustain).

The neck is a peach. It is true, and the truss rod works freely. You have to love the easy to adjust trussrod wheel. It has a nice-looking rosewood fretboard, and the 21 high-profile frets are still in great shape. The back of the neck is finished in gunstock oil and wax, which always feels as smooth as silk. This one has a compensated nut, which I am unable to hear an intonation difference from, but someone with a good ear might…

The original hardware is all there, which includes the Schaller BM tapered post tuners and the high-mass bridge. I love the way the bridge bolts so solidly to the body on these basses. It is not a Classic model, so it does not have the string mutes, but I am not sure how many people actually use those things anyway.

The electronics are also unmolested, with the original single humbucker pickup and 3-band preamp. Stingrays have punch to spare, making them fabulous funk or rock basses. This is a well-made bass. The finish is perfect and the frets are simply gorgeous. I strung it up with some new regular gauge Slinkies, dropped the action a little, and It plays well and sounds magnificent, just like every other Stingray I have ever owned. As a bonus, it is relatively light (for a Stingray, that is), coming it at around 9 1/2 pounds. All bass players should own one of these at least once in their career. Trust me…


Saturday, June 21, 2014

2004 Sadowsky NYC PJ Bass Review


Today we are looking at one of the finest basses I have ever owned, a Sadowsky NYC Vintage P J bass guitar. For the gigging musicians a Sadowsky bass is one of the most desired instruments ever made.

Obviously it is a Fender clone, but the Fender Custom Shop has never cranked out anything as good as this bass. The full-size alder body has a Jazz Bass profile and shape, and it is finished in Inca Silver. Is has to be chambered, since it is so light. And, you have to dig that three-ply white pickguard with this finish.

It has a J-Bass width neck which is 1.5-inches wide at the nut, and a 9-inch radius on the fretboard. This has the optional vintage tint on the neck and a rosewood fretboard, which is gorgeous. The neck is a dream. The neck pocket fit is the tightest I have ever seen. It is true, and the truss rod wheel is a very handy feature for quick adjustments.

It has the original Sadowsky pickups and pre-amp with VTC. It has no unusual noises, and sounds flawless. The high-quality Sadowsky hardware is all present and in great condition. The bridge and tuners are full of tasty chrome goodnessand there is a bonus D-tuner.

It has all of these great features, and It weighs in at 7 pounds 3 ounces, according to my scale. Amazingly stupid light!

This one was made in 2004, and I got it from the original owner, who was inexplicably letting it go. I really liked it, but this bass might just be a lot more than what I need. Plus I have a couple of other Sadowskys already…

Maybe you should get one. These basses sell for over $4000 new, and you will have to wait at least 6 months to get one, so you had better order yours today!


Thursday, June 19, 2014

1989 Spector NS-2A Bass Review


Today we are looking at a sweet 1989 Spector NS-2A bass that is an attractive offspring of the relationship between Spector and Kramer Guitars.

Stuart Spector is a luthier that started his own company in 1974, and he introduced his most famous and popular bass design, the NS, in 1977. “NS” stands for Ned Steinberger, who helped design the bass. Later Ned would go on to found Steinberger guitars.

NS basses sold well, leading Kramer Guitars to buy the company in 1985. Kramer continued production of the NS, and introduced an imported line of basses that include the NS-2A we are talking about today. All of these basses were sold under the Spector name until Kramer went bankrupt in 1991.

So, this bass is a 1989 NS-2A, which is one of approximately 7000 that were built between 1987 and 1990. This is a neck through bass with the same body shape as the NS, with a carved top and a concave back. It is finished in a formerly gorgeous glossy black poly. It is a 25 year old bass that has been gigged, so it has the expected dings, chips and scratches.

The 34-inch scale neck has a rosewood fretboard with pearl dot inlays, and despite its age it shows very little fret wear. The headstock has the SSD logo, and the original Spector truss rod cover, anddo not forget that bad ass 1980s-issue brass nut. The neck is very playable and has a nice medium/low action.

This NS-2A has its original black hardware, and the finish has held up a lot better than it did on the late 1980s Fenders. The bridge looks to be the same design as they use today, and the Schaller tuners are a nice find on an import bass. By the way, an odd feature of these basses is that the serial number is stamped onto the pre-amplifier cavity cover.

The original Spector-branded pickups are long gone, and have been replaced with active EMGs that are routed through a 9-volt Haz copy preamp. This is my favorite configuration, and there are four control knobs, including treble, bass, volume and tone (I think)… This thing sounds fabulous, with lots of growl and a solid burp on the back pickup. If you are popping and slapping kind of player this is the instrument for you.

Lastly, this bass will not kill your shoulder and back. It weighs in at a bit over 8 1/2 pounds, which is not too bad at all.

So, I think this NS-2A is a winner -- it looks cool, plays well, sounds awesome, and lives up to what I expect from a Spector bass for boatloads less than I would pay for similar quality instruments. Right now these basses are still a fabulous deal, selling for $600-$700, so if you always wanted a Spector but are not rich you will not find a better value.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

1974 Ibanez 512 Mandolin Review


I am just learning to play mandolin, and after trying out one of the new Ibanez F-style instruments, I was disappointed as its quality did not meet my expectations from this venerable Japanese manufacturer. So, my search led me to a 1970s vintage A-model 512 that certainly hit a lot closer to the mark.

The Ibanez 512 mandolin was made in Japan from 1974 to 1980, and this one appears to be from around 1975, or so. It is a knock-off of a Gibson A-50 (I think) and it has the traditional pear-shaped body with a solid carved spruce top and laminated rosewood back and sides. The body is bound front and rear, and it has pretty black and cream purfling.

The unbound neck appears to be made of maple (it is painted black on the back), and it has a 20-fret rosewood fretboard. The headstock has a pleasant paddle shape with an Ibanez script logo.

The hardware is good, with sharp looking open-geared tuners and an adjustable and compensated rosewood bridge. The tailpiece is a bit chintzy, but it gets the job done. The pickguard is a classy two-ply piece (black over white), that I seem to be unable to get tightened down properly. This might be as good as it gets…

These instruments were very cheap when they came out (well under $100), but this one has held up well nonetheless. The natural finish is still shiny and the frets are in great shape. There is a stable crack at the bass side F-hole, but it looks like it has not grown in years. And in case you are wondering, it only weighs two pounds, one ounce.

These Ibanez mandolins are still dirt cheap (under $200) and they are a great bargain. This one sounds great and plays well, and it appears to be awfully darned durable. This would be a fine instrument for beginners and experienced players alike, and it would be a nice piece that you good take to a gig and not have to worry about.

If you see one up for sale at a decent price, I say grab it. You will be hard pressed to do better for short money.


Monday, June 16, 2014

2013 Taylor GS Mini Acoustic Guitar Review


I have spent a lot of time trying out travel guitars, and have played everything that Martin and Taylor have to offer. A while back I tried the mahogany-topped GS Mini acoustic, and thought it was about time that I tested one with the spruce top.

Taylor guitars are fantastic instruments, and though the sound of their full-sized guitars is not my cup of tea, they have untold numbers of devotees that will say that I am full of it (and maybe I am). Most Taylor guitars are built in their San Diego, California factory, but some of their lower-priced instruments are built just across the border in Tecate, Mexico. These include the 100 and 200 series instruments, as well as the Baby Taylor and the GS Mini models.

For a travel guitar the GS Mini is awfully big -- most parlor and travel guitars are called ¾-sized guitars, and I call this one 7/8-sized. It has a 23.5-inch scale, and it measures almost 5 inches deep with a 15 inch wide body. So, right from the start I am disqualifying this as an airline travel guitar.

But, the Taylor GS Mini is a nice instrument, and it has a definite role to play in the musical world. Before we get to that, let’s take a look at how this thing is put together.

GS Minis are available with either a spruce or a tropical mahogany top, and I chose the one with the solid Sitka spruce top. The top has X braces to keep everything together while still allowing it to vibrate well. The back and sides are made with a sapele laminate, which looks like mahogany to me. The body has a tasteful black and while purfling, a simple rosette and a tortoise shell pickguard. The whole this has an even coating of matte-finish varnish.

The neck and heel are also made of sapele, and the fretboard is hewn from ebony, which is surprising on a guitar at this price point. The nut is a bit narrow at 1 11/16 inches width, but combining this with the shallow V profile of the neck you end up with a guitar that is nice for those with smaller hands. There are 20 frets standard-sized Taylor frets, and you will find 14 of them free from the body. The headstock has a simple overlay with a screen printed logo, and sealed-back chrome tuners. They are unbranded, but seem to be good quality, and they hold tune well between practice sessions.

The craftsmanship is up to Taylor’s high standards, with an even finish and a truly terrific job with the fretwork. The Tusq nut and compensated bridge are perfect, and this GS Mini came out of the box with a surprisingly playable low action with the OEM Elixir medium gauge Nanoweb strings. I worry a little about the durability of the finish, which is thin and has already shown some unsightly yellowing. Fortunately the spruce-topped guitars are bound, which is something that is missing from the hog models.

Playability is also top-notch, taking into account the narrower neck, which makes fingerstyle a little more difficult for clumsy chaps like myself. This is a very easy to play instrument. This one came with a slightly higher action, so it was easier to dig in and I really like the way it plays.

The sound is amazingly big for a smaller guitar, living up to the GS in its name (Grand Symphony). This is helped by the big soundhole and the rounded back, the shape of which eliminates the need for back bracing. Of course the bass is not terribly thunderous, but it certainly has an even tone across the strings when playing with light to medium intensity.

The sound is big, and much less sterile than the mahogany top model. It has the warmth that I like in my little Martin, and it would probably sound great plugged in -- but you will have to add a pickup, as the GS Mini does not ship with electronics.

Taylor makes it amazingly easy to add electronics to these guitars with their ES-Go soundhole mounted humbucker pickup system. If you order this $98 kit, it will answer your questions about the design of the goofy screw-on chrome strap pin. Installation is a breeze with no guitar modifications, and should just take a few minutes, with a screwdriver being the only tool you will need. No soldering is required! I have heard mixed reviews on the pickup’s performance, and I have not had the opportunity to try one out, so I will hold off judgment until I can hear one in person.

In case you were wondering, these guitars ship in a surprisingly sturdy padded soft case. Like all Taylor soft cases, it is that terrible tan color than gets dirty as soon as it comes out of the factory shipping box. It does a nice job of protecting the guitar, thoug

So, where does the Taylor GS Mini fit in if it is too big to take on the plane? Well, it would still be great for a car trip, or if you have to lug your guitar around on the subway or bus. But where it really works is as a modern day parlor guitar. Its small size makes it great for kicking around the house, and as I said it would be a good guitar for smaller people. If you set it up with light gauges strings, it would be a great instrument for kids and beginners.

The Taylor GS Mini has a list price of $678 and a street price of $499, which includes the aforementioned gig bag. Though I do not consider it to be the world’s greatest travel guitar, it is a very nice instrument that would be great for smaller-statured players, or for general playing around the house of campfire. Try one out, and see for yourself!


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Nigel Mack Devil’s Secrets Album Review

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the August 8, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Nigel Mack – Devil’s Secrets

Self Release through Blues Attack Records

12 tracks / 45:36

The technology to record and produce your own music has been available to the masses for years now, and though I have found the results to be mixed, often times it turns out to be really great art that otherwise would not have made its way to my headphones. When scrolling through the seemingly endless list of independent CDs on my computer, Nigel Mack’s self-produced Devil’s Secret stands out as one of the gems.

Nigel Mack (Mackenzie) is originally from Saskatoon, Canada, but in 1988 he relocated with his band to Vancouver, as it is a fantastic city with a thriving arts scene. But Professor Eddie Lusk hooked him up with the Chicago scene in the early 1990s, and he ended up touring across the United States for the next ten years. Finally, in 2003 he decided to call the Windy City his home.

All twelve of the tracks on Devil’s Secrets are originals, and they were recorded in Vancouver and Chicago, with different musicians at each location -- I guess he never lost those Canadian connections! Besides assuming the roles of writer and producer, Nigel also took care of the vocal chores, as well as contributing harmonica, guitar and slide guitar parts. Working with two bands, two recording studios, a mixing studio in Nashville, and a guest artist that was recording in Texas must have been difficult, but this CD still turned out to be a nice piece of work.

The first track up is “King for a Day,” and right away it is apparent how slick this album is. Though this is a blues-based song, there is almost a samba feel to the bass line, and the band is as tight as can be. Most notable is the Chicago-sourced horn section of Lise Gilly on sax, Johnny Cotton on trombone, and Victor Garcia on trumpet. Lise and Nigel did a top-notch job of arranging the horns and integrating them into the tune (and three others on this disc).

The title track is a more basic blues rocker. Things really get into the groove here, and this where I noticed Nigel’s strong voice. He imparts a touch of humor to its tone that fits in well with the clever lyrics of a man torn between right and wrong. Mack’s slide guitar is also very good and it contrasts nicely with the popping bass from Vic Jackson and the rich organ tones of Brian James.

“Here’s to You” is a slow tempo number which features a return of the horn section and some nice lead guitar work from Nigel. This drinking-man’s ode to the love of his life is followed up by a Creole-tinged tune, “Come Back Baby.” This one is a treat as Mack switches over to harmonica and we get to hear some wonderful accordion work from guest artist CJ Chenier, straight out of the Lone Star State. I think I heard a little washboard in there too!

There is plentiful word-twisting to “Dead Presidents (Don’t Tell No Tales)” as he details the woes of a man who finds out the hard way that it is better to not leave a paper trail when stepping out on his old lady. This is a classically constructed tune with a decidedly “Mustang Sally” vibe to the backline. By the way, this is the first of the three Vancouver tracks on Devil’s Secrets; I do not see any real difference in the recording or engineering between the different studios, so the progression of songs is seamless.

“Chicago Bound” is a live recording from Pete’s Place in Chicago, and it turned out to not be the Jimmy Rogers version that I had been expecting. It is an original tune with Nigel masterfully playing a well-mic’d National steel guitar, stomping his foot and howling the vocals. This bare-bones blues song is a real gem, and I love that he snuck this one into the mix.

Nigel shows a strong grasp of many different genres on Devil’s Secrets, and “Meet Her Funk” shows that he was paying attention during the 1970s. This Vancouver-based track features some first-rate horn playing from saxophonist Steve Eisen while David Webb tears thing up on the organ. There are at least three guitar parts in this one, and though Mack is credited for the vocals, I had to listen to it a few times before I realized there aren’t any words to be found.

He snuck another instrumental in, and “Strut Your Stuff” has a driving Chicago blues feel to it and some astounding harmonica tone. Nigel trades his harp with some awesome guitar work from Todd Taylor and James Rogers. And finally, “Let’s Make a Date” leaves us with no doubt that those years on the road working with so many great artists honed his skills and gave him a solid understanding of the blues.

Devil’s Secrets is a very good album of original material, and this work proves that Nigel Mack is a force to be reckoned with. He has set the bar high with first-rate musicianship, writing, arranging and production; I expect great things from him for his next release. If you check out this album, you will become a believer too!


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Success Story: Long Beach Guitar Repair to the Rescue


I have written before about how happy I am to have Long Beach Guitar Repair nearby, and they recently came to my rescue once again.

There was a neat 1990 cherryburst Gibson Les Paul Standard that I found and it was available at a good price. There are all kinds of blemishes on it, but it is honest playwear, which is not too troubling. But, there was a headstock repair that had been performed before. This is usually not a big deal, but this one had been repaired amateurishly, and though it was sturdy there was excess glue everywhere and it was a complete mess.

It eventually made its way over to the shop, and Chris said that he could make it a lot better. He worked on it for a week or two, with a call in the middle asking if I wanted the original style tuners back on. I like Grovers, but Les Pauls just look right with green tulip deluxe tuners, so I gave the ok. It turns out a few of the screws were broken, so it looks like it was the right choice...

When it came back I was very happy with the results—he got all of the excess goo off, and the repaired area is now smooth as silk. I wish it photographed better, but trust me, it is worlds better.

Chris got the work done under my budget (including nice set up and a little fret work), and I am pleased as punch; I would not hesitate to take any of my instruments there. Everybody there (Chris, Brian and Guillermo) have tons of experience, and they are friendly too!

Long Beach Guitar Repair is located at 2930 East 7th Street in Long Beach, and they are open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 AM to 6 PM. Check out their website at or give them a call at 562-621-9000. Say “hi” for me!


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review of Tower of Power, Steve Miller Band and Journey at the Hollywood Bowl


On May 16 there was a triple bill at the Hollywood Bowl that I just could not miss -- all bands that started in San Francisco, and none of which I had seen live before: Tower of Power, the Steve Miller Band and Journey. How could I possibly resist?

The Hollywood Bowl is Los Angeles at its finest, and it is usually a good place to see a show. The acoustics are good, and since it is in an urban area they have to keep the volume in check. Unfortunately the usual laid-back vibe was absent, which was unfortunate as this is usually my favorite Southern California outdoor concert venue. The audience included a heavy mix of drunken middle-aged frat boys who were pretty much out of control for the entire evening. What a drag! On the plus side, I did not have to park at the Bowl so I saved $23 for parking, and my car was not held hostage in the stacked lots.

This is a lot of bands so the show had an early start, and it kicked off right on time at 6:30 with Tower of Power. This rhythm and blues extravaganza has been around for 46 years, and very few of the 10 guys on stage were original members, but it did not matter much. They have the tightest horns around, and it was a shame that the terrible audience did not get into it more as they cruised through old favorites, including my favorite “Soul Vaccination.”

After a quick stage reset, the Steve Miller Band came onstage around 7:30, and did an amazing 75-minute set, which was kicked off by “Jungle Love.” They did not miss a hit, going through “Gangster of Love,” “Living in the USA,” “Space Cowboy,” “Swingtown,” ”Abracadabra,” “Jet Airliner,” and finishing up with ”Fly Like an Eagle.” They performed as a 5-piece, with some outstanding key work from Joseph Wooten, plus background vocals and dance stylings from the inimitable Sonny Charles.

Miller was in good form for the show, and it was easy to forget that he is 70. His guitar work was tight and his vocals are still good, and he even hit the harmonica a few times. It is interesting to note that he appears to have never adopted wireless for his guitars, so the guitar change after each song was a bit of a dance with his tech to make sure that the cables did not get tangled.

One gripe that was true for both the Steve Miller and Journey parts of the evening was that the sound was not very good. Is was muddy, and combining that with the bad crowd did not make for an enjoyable evening.

Journey took the final hour and a half of the evening, and the first question everybody asks me is “how was the new guy?” In a nutshell, Arnel Pineda is really damned good, certainly better than anything the Steve Perry could do today, and he can actually sing in tune. By the way, he is not the new guy anymore, having joined the band almost seven years ago.

The band started their set with “Be Good to Yourself,” which is one of their weaker hits, but they pulled it off anyway. Pineda took advantage of the fact that he is twenty years younger than Perry and was energetic throughout the night, and was quite entertaining to watch. Founding member and guitarist Neal Schon still has his chops, and quickly settled into a steady groove. Later on Neal cranked out “The Star Spangled Banner” which still puzzles me a bit as to how it was supposed to fit into the show.

Journey did not miss any hits, with Arnel taking the lead on crowd favorites that included “Any Way You Want It,” “Faithfully,” “Open Arms,” “Wheel in the Sky” and “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).” I was less impressed with Jonathan Cain taking the vocals on “Anytime” and Deen Castronovo’s version of “Mother, Father.” They finished the main set up with “Don’t Stop Believin’” and thrilled the audience with “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” for the encore.

It should be noted that there were no signs of discord on stage, in light of the rumors that Pineda has been recently saying that he thought that Steve Perry should retake his rightful place in the band. Stay tuned.

With better sound and a reasonable crowd this would have been a great show. This was one of their first stops on this tour so there will be plenty of chances to catch the threesome this summer, including a trip back to LA at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on August 2nd. It might be worth your time to check them out...


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Austin Young & NO Difference – Blue As Can Be Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the August 15, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Austin Young & NO Difference – Blue As Can Be

Vizztone Label Group

13 tracks / 57:02

It does not happen often, but every few years a new teenage blues rock talent knocks me back on my heels, Tyler Bryant did it a few years ago, and Austin Young has done it again. Austin Young & NO Difference’s second album, Blue as Can Be, is an enjoyable listen and it gives me renewed hope for the future of blues and the music industry as a whole.

17-year old Austin is based out of Colorado Springs, and it is hard to believe that he is self-taught and that he has only been playing for five years. Apparently he has not been wasting his teenage years by playing video games and watching television. Besides taking care of the guitars and vocals he also produced this album and did a lot of the writing. He is joined by fellow teen Noah Mast on bass and vocals, and Tim Young (his dad) on drums and vocals.

You would expect a blues rock guitar prodigy like Austin Young to throw a Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix cover tune into the mix, but he resisted temptation and filled up Blue As Can Be with thirteen original tracks. Austin Young and NO Difference wrote all of these songs, and they show some depth by experimenting with a few different genres outside of their baseline of blues rock.

“Thunderhead” kicks things off with an uptempo drum riff, and quickly adds a searing guitar line with a few layers of rhythm guitar underneath. Austin immediately establishes himself as a top-shelf guitarist, but is voice is very good too. As he belts out the classic blues pattern of lyrics I am struck that he sounds quite a bit older than the teenager that he is. This power blues rock tune gets things off to a strong start!

The title track comes up next, and he indicates in the liner notes that “Blue As Can Be” is his tribute to Muddy Waters. This slower-tempo song is heavier and dirtier, with a thumping bass line and an organ they brought in from somewhere. This is a really tight song, and the backline of Noah and Tim do a bang-up job of keeping things moving.

“Magdalena” is a lovely folk tune that has some nice steel guitar work within. His buddy Jim Adam provided the lyrics for this one, and the background vocals too. Unfortunately his lyrics are good enough that it makes the songs written by the rest of the band seem a little cliché-heavy. But this is only their second album, and they are a young band so they have plenty of time to work on this aspect of their music.

NO Difference can dish out a fast-paced roadhouse tune with some honky-tonk piano too. That piano and a little call and response give “Who’s Coming Out?” a Jerry lee Lewis good times vibe, and Austin does an admirable job of cranking out some 1950s style guitar work. This is followed up by “Borrowed Time,” a pop tune that features some nice vocal harmonies in the chorus.

Though I consider my myself a blues fan, my favorite track on the album is the jazzy rockabilly song, “That’s It.” I think it has a great beat, a strong chorus, and I am a sucker for the scat he threw out in the middle. This is 2½ minutes of fun, folks.

Don’t think I have gone too soft, though, “Give Me One Good Reason” come in a very close second. This is a seven minute slow grinding blues jam, and shows that the band has amazing blues chops and feel. Austin’s Dad does an especially good job of hammering out the drum lines, and reminds me a bit of Reg Isadore from Robin Trower’s band.

The sweet finale of Blue As Can Be, “Miss You Moore,” is an instrumental dedicated to the memory of the late bluesman Gary Moore, who left this world far too soon. His smooth guitar work is a fine tribute to this legendary British guitarist that we all miss so dearly.

By the way, I would be remiss if I did not point out that this CD stands out from most of the ones I get these days as it has exceptionally good liner notes. I like to read up on what I am listening to, and they put together notes for each track, a short bio for each artist and even a timeline of his short (but distinguished) career. They stopped short of adding the lyrics, but I can understand what they are singing, so that is not a loss.

Blue As Can Be is a very strong sophomore effort, and I hope that Austin Young can stick to his guns and continue to grow in his songwriting, while continuing to be his own man and follow his dream. Like prodigies that came before him, his exceptional guitar and vocal skills would make him a valuable draft choice for an established rock or blues band that needs a second guitar. It would be a shame if this happened and we did not get to see him not standing out front of the band, where he belongs.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

2013 Epiphone Zakk Wylde Signature Les Paul Custom Review

Hi there!

Today we are looking at a really neat hard rock/metal guitar – a 2013 Epiphone Zakk Wylde Custom Plus Bullseye in Antique Ivory. This is an affordable version of the amazing Gibson model, and it comes in at a fraction of the original’s eye-popping list price of $6880 (street $4799). This is the latest version of the Epiphone model, and there have been some important changes.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the man, Zakk Wylde is Ozzy Osborne’s former guitarist, and is the founder of the Black Label Society. He is a guitar hero of the highest order, and this guitar is a fitting tribute to him and his mad skills.

For starters, it is a Les Paul Custom, so it has the traditional body shape, multi-layer binding, pearl block inlays, and gold hardware. It has a one-piece mahogany body -- apparently the carved maple top is a thing of the past. There are gold-plated Grover tuners and a Tune-O-Matic stopbar tailpiece, so there is nothing really out of the ordinary with these parts. It even has the expected trapezoidal inlays in the 12-inch radius fretboard. But, there are a few major differences from the usual Les Paul specs.

The most significant difference is the electronics package. It comes with high-power Zakk Wylde model EMG 81 (neck) and 85 (Bridge) pickups, with two volume controls, two tone controls and a 3-way (3-way!) pickup selector switch. So, it is going to have that EMG sound, love it or hate it. This is a major divergence from previous Epi ZW models, which came with passive EMG HZ pickups. The battery is easy to change, as they put a battery box on the rear control cover.

The other huge difference is that the set neck on these is made of hard maple with a satin finish. These guitars now come with a rosewood fretboard (the Gibson ones and early Epiphone models used ebony).

Cosmetically there are a few neat things going on too, obviously there is the dizzying bullseye paint job, as well as the special Zakk Wylde graphic on the back of the headstock and the gold truss rod cover.

After giving this Les Paul a thorough exam, I have to say that it is really a well-made instrument. There is not a single thing to complain about: the hardware and electronics are all first-rate, and the finish is flawless. Better yet, the fretwork and neck binding is better than I have seen on most modern day guitars that are coming out of Gibson’s US factories. Maybe their quality control staff can learn something from the folks over in China that put these things together.

This all comes together well, and the playing experience is something to write a blog post about. The slim-taper C neck is very fast, and there is no fret buzz or dead spots. Plus, I love the way the maple neck feels. I have it set up with Ernie Ball 0.010s, but if you are a huge fanboy you could always track down a set of the Zakk Wylde GHS Boomers (also 0.010s). Rawk!

It also sounds incredible (I like EMG pickups), with no unwanted noise and an aggressive tone with more than enough output. It takes effects well (wah and distortion) and it is the ultimate rock guitar. By the way, it weighs in at 8 pounds, 15 ounces, which is not bad for a Les Paul.

As I said right up front, the Epiphone Zakk Wylde Les Paul Custom is a tremendous value, too, and you are going to save $4000 by not buying the Gibson version. These guitars have a list price of $1165 and a street price of $699, which is not bad at all. Be careful if you are buying used, as the specs have changed a bit over the years, and you do not want to get stuck with a passive pickup model.