Saturday, August 30, 2014

BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer Guitar Effects Pedal Review


You can pay anything you want for guitar effect pedals, and the choices include crummy junk for twenty bucks (probably put together by little kids in sweatshops) all the way up to boutique pedals with prices so high that they must use unicorn hair for wiring. Somewhere in between are BOSS pedals, which are reasonably priced, good quality, and the mainstay of many working musicians. Today we are going to take a closer look at the BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer pedal.

What exactly is a compressor sustainer pedal? Well, this one compresses louder signals and boosts softer signals, resulting in more even output. At the same time it can sustain your notes, making them sound longer. Putting these two features can result in a smoother sound, and this will work with either guitar or bass.

The CS-3 is a standard single-space sized pedal, measuring 2-7/8 inches wide by 2-3/8 inches tall by 5-1/8 inches long. Take that, metric system! In that same vein, it weighs in at around 15 ounces. This pedal runs on a single 9-volt battery or it takes the optional BOSS PSA adapter. It draws 11 mA at 9 volts, in case you are thinking of hooking it up to a pedal board power system.

By the way, if you run the unit on battery, make sure you unplug the input when you are not using it, as the input jack acts as the power switch.

It has the same general style as other BOSS pedals, but this one comes in a lovely shade of blue. The outside of the sturdy metal case has a single 1/4 input, a single 1/4-inch output and a jack for the aforementioned AC adapter. The expected BOSS high quality is to be found here, with a smooth finish, clean wiring, and knobs that have a nice feel. These knobs include Level, Tone, Attack, and Sustain, so it is not too complicated. Here is what they do:

Level: adjusts output level, not input level

Tone: high frequency boost and cut

Attack: enhances the intensity of each note by controlling how quickly the compression activates.

Sustain: adjusts the sustain time. If turned counter-clockwise it acts as a limiter.

The CS-1 was one of BOSS' first mass-production pedals, and it has changed quite a bit over the years as the model name has changed to CS-2 and then later to the CS-3. There seems to be a bit of hate out there for the CS-3, particularly with the changes in the circuit and the addition of a tone knob. That being said, I like having the tone pot on the unit so that no changes are needed to my guitar settings when I switch the pedal ON.

The CS-3 is at its best when it is asked to provide a high level of compression, and combining it with the right guitar/amp combination (think Les Paul and a Marshall). It certainly can squish things down, and there are definitely usable ranges, to be found though I would avoid anything outside of the 9:00 to 3:00 range as there is too drastic of a difference in tone when the unit is switched on. Increasing sustain seems to enhance the compression effect, so I usually keep it below 10:00. The tone control is very useful, and it helps dial out most of the muddiness that comes bout from the compression. With these settings the attack can be spot on without a ton of mush.

In a nutshell, the CS-3 is a pretty good pedal for a reasonable price, which is what BOSS is all about. This pedal would be good for hard rock and metal, but if you are playing jazz, country or blues it will not make you very happy because it is hard to get a clean sound out of it.

Unfortunately, there are a few downside to this unit. For starters, it does not have true bypass, which is something that everybody and their brother wants. In truth, there is some color added to the straight tone when bypassing the pedal, and gear nuts are fanatical about this. But more importantly, is that, no matter what the manufacturer says in their sales literature, this pedal is pretty darned noisy if the controls (Level and Sustain) are used very aggressively.

By the way, there is a considerable number of folks out there modifying these pedals to reduce noise and improve tone, but I have not had the opportunity to try one. If you have, please add a comment to let us know what you think!

If these are the features you are looking for and if you can handle a little extra noise in your signal chain, the BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer may be the pedal for you. It will get the job done and is certainly reasonably priced with a list price of $154.50 and a street price of $99. They are way cheaper on the used market, but you will be giving up the 5-year warranty if you go that route. Check one out before you buy to make sure it is really what you want, and let me know what you think.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

1983 Westone Thunder III Version 1 Bass Guitar Review


I have had a decades-long love for vintage Japanese guitars and basses since I purchased my first Aria Pro II bass back in 1986, and since then I have owned and played more instruments from Japan than I would dare to admit. Well, today we are looking at really sweet one: a minty Westone Thunder III bass from 1983.

For those of you who have no been studying the history of Japanese guitar builders, here is a quick run-down on the brand. Matsumoku was a Japanese company that specialized in making guitars for many brands, including Aria, Epiphone, Vox and more. They built very good instruments, including copies of popular American instruments that caused some legal difficulties.

After building instruments for other companies for all of those years, in 1981 they decided to start their own brand and Westone was born. Their products were never a big hit and in 1987 Matsumoku sold the brand to a Korean company, and by 1991 the brand was gone. Not many of their guitars were imported to the US, and it seems like most of their products went to the UK.

If you look at this Thunder III, the most obvious thing is that this looks an awful lot like an Aria Pro II Super Bass. Of course those Super Basses looked a lot like the Alembics that they were copying, but that is a yet another bag of snakes. Anyway, it has a clear-finished laminated Canadian ash, maple and walnut body, rosewood fretboard, 2-on-a-side tuners, and a brass nut and bridge. This is not a coincidence, as Matsumoku built those Aria Super Basses too!

But, there are a few important differences. For starters, the Thunder III body has less extreme cutaways and it has 22 frets instead of 24. Also, the fret markers are cool little snowflakes, and the brass bridge has a more conventional design, which in my opinion looks better than the Aria bridges. But the big deal is the electronics package, which is really cool.

The Westone Thunder II Version 2 had optional PJ (HF600B and SA800B) pickups introduced in 1982, then in 1983 they renamed this PJ model as the Thunder III with no changes. These pickups are different than the humbucker(s) in the Super Basses, though they appear to use the identical 18-volt onboard preamplifier. The controls are not the same either. Instead of the 6-way control switch, the Westones got volume, active and passive tone controls as well as phase reverse, 'dual tone' (series/parallel) and active tone switches.

This one is kind of a time capsule, with no wear and just a few bumps and bruises and the frets and brass parts look like new. It is really a beautiful instrument, and it plays just as good as it looks. It has a 1 5/8-inch wide nut, and the neck profile is a comfy shallow C. One thing is that the body horns are so short that it makes the neck feels really long. It takes a little getting used to, but it sounds great in both the active and passive modes and it is worth the trouble. Having the P and J pickups gives it a lot more range than the Aria basses and it does a genuine Precision Bass tone as well as clean and edgy sounds. It can be a slap and pop monster too, if that is your thing.

I have only seen a few Westone Thunder III basses in the wild, and this one is still out in the studio if you are ready to get one for yourself. Drop me a line if you are interested, and we’ll see if we get it into your hands.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Album review: Clay Swafford – Rooster

Good day!

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

Clay Swafford – Rooster

Lost Cause Records

14 tracks / 48:56

I am a huge boogie-woogie fan, but also understand that this kind of blues music might not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, if you are a fan of the blues you are shortchanging yourself if you write off the genre completely, especially with artists like Clay Swafford out there. This young man is the real deal and the maturity, talent and emotion he displays with his performance on his debut album, Rooster, will make a believer out of you.

Clay Swafford was born in 1983, but this pianist is not new to the blues and boogie-woogie scene. Raised in rural Alabama, he discovered the blues at 15 (Otis Spann with Muddy Waters, no less), and by the time he was 16 he was on stage at the Pinetop Perkins Homecoming Celebration. At the age of 20 he was featured in the boogie-woogie piano documentary, Falsifyin, alongside established legends such as Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Both of these men recognized Swafford’s talent and were quite vocal about their respect for his talent. Since then he has played at festivals and clubs all over the south, both by himself and with established artists, such as the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.

For Rooster, Swafford did things his own way, dragging an old upright piano into the studio and miking it well. There is no digital wizardry or overdubs, so everything you hear is exactly the way it sounded when he laid it down, with every rattle, overtone and pop caught on tape for posterity. And it is glorious! The first eleven tracks include five originals, and he is joined by the lovely Texan Diunna Greenleaf on five of the covers. No drums, bass or guitar, just a piano master and one of the best blues singers out there.

“Rooster’s Boogie” is a short warm-up track that gives a preview of what Clay is capable of, which includes wielding a left hand that is like the hammer of Thor and a right hand that moves so fast that it sounds like there are two guys sitting on the piano bench. Pinetop Perkins said of Swafford, “I have ten fingers; it looks like he has twenty! He’s tearing the keys down on that piano, man!”

From there he alternates original instrumentals with cover tunes that feature Greenleaf, the first of which is Big Joe Turner’s “29 Ways.” After Turner’s original, this is by far my favorite version of this classic. If you are not familiar with Diunna, it is time you made your acquaintance with this living legend. Her voice is amazingly powerful, and the raw recording style of this disc conveys her inflections and emotions beautifully.

The standout original track on Rooster is “Olympic Strut,” because Swafford is able to slow things down from the usual breakneck boogie-woogie tempo and the listener gets a chance to focus on the feel of his astounding right hand work. He also keeps the speed down for Willie Mae Thornton’s “Sometimes I Have a Heartache,” which Diunna just tears to pieces. The heart that she puts into her singing is a high mark that any up and coming blues singer should aspire to measure up to.

Rooster finishes up with three neat bonus tracks. Clay recorded the first two in Clarksdale, Mississippi with his buddy, singer/guitarist Bob Margolin. They laid down their own versions of Muddy Waters’ “Mean Disposition” and Elmore James’ “Fine Little Mama” that feature Margolin’s gorgeous slide guitar work and his well-weathered voice. The final track is a live cut of “Tin Pan Alley” with Swafford joining Bob Corritone and the All Stars from the Rhythm Room in Phoenix, Arizona. These tracks show how well Clay plays with others, and that he is not a one-trick pony.

Whether you are a boogie-woogie fan or not, if you enjoy the blues and/or slick piano playing there is something for you to like in Clay Swafford’s Rooster. By the way, if you do like what you hear and decide to buy the album, be sure to read the liner notes, as there are neat tidbits about all of the tracks. This is a fabulous first effort, and surely there will be great things to come for this prodigy!


Monday, August 18, 2014

Yamaha MG06X Mixing Console Review


I have tried out more than enough mixing boards over the years, and eventually settled into the Yamaha MG series of boards as they are reliable, easy to use, and relatively cheap. So I was understandably excited when Yamaha introduced new MG models with upmarket modern features. Today we are going to look at an all-new model, the analog MG06X. It is a nice piece of gear!

I have a few different mixing boards, depending on what job I am doing, and the MG06X is the smallest of the bunch. How small is it? It measures 6 x 8 x 2 1/2 inches, and it weighs only 2 pounds. It feels solid though, thanks to its metal chassis (the old series was plastic), and it seems like it will hold up well in the long run. One godsend is that they got rid of the terrible dedicated power cable with the huge transformer (that weighed as much as a mixer) and went to an onboard power supply. The new-style power cord has a small wall wart and can be replaced at an electronics store if you get in a jam.

This board is useful in situations where I need just a few microphones and/or want to run an iPad or CD player through my powered speakers. In my world it ends up being used for awards shows, picnics, school dances and karaoke parties -- it even makes for a nice headphone practice amp for my guitars and keyboards.

Most of the basics are there, such as EQ functions, a headphone out, switchable phantom power for two of the inputs (channel 1 and two are combination XLR/TRS), and balanced XLR and 1/4-inch stereo outs. Unfortunately a few things disappeared from the previous entry-level MG-series mixers, including the effects loop, compression, the monitor outs, and the mids for the EQ.

Like all Yamaha mixers, they play a little trickery with their specs. They call this a 6-channel unit, but is you look at it 4 of the channels are the 2 stereo inputs that are only controlled in pairs. Sounds like 4 channels to me, but since I have owned other Yamaha mixers, I knew this before I bought it. Also, these extra inputs are all unbalanced ¼-inch and there are no RCA jacks, but there are plenty of adapters out there (or it is time to buy new cables). Some dealers are advertising USB connectivity, but there is none. Always check with the manufacturer…

What sets the MG06X apart from the competition is its nice array of SPX effects. There are a total of six reverb and delay effects, and they all work pretty well. These are just the ticket for churching up coffee house or karaoke gigs. It almost makes it seem like untalented people can sing!

I have used it for a few parties and small gigs and have been happy with the sound. The two microphone channels have D-PRE class A microphone preamps, and they also have pad switches in case you need them. The op-amp has a very clear tone and does not color the sound at all. Also, if you do not go overboard with the effects they can be a nice supplement to your mix.

Extra bonus features for channels 1 and 2 include high pass filters to help tame muddiness from unwanted low frequencies, and pad switches to tone down loud inputs. This is handy for the drunk people that shriek into the microphones at karaoke parties.

It is a bummer to not have any options for monitor output, no compression, and no mid EQ controls, but if you need that much flexibility you are probably going to buy a bigger mixer anyway. Sliding faders and mutes switches also would have been nice, but at this price point I am happy enough with the knobs that they provided.

By the way, this mixers can be mounted to a microphone stand if you purchase the optional BMS-10A adapter kit. With its metal chassis you might be able to bang this around, and if you do not need a powered mixer, monitors, computer connectivity or a bazillion input channels, this would be a great mixer for the money.

The Yamaha MG06X has a list price of $159 and a street price of $119. This is a bit more than the slightly larger old-style MG102C that I still have, but having the effects and a sturdier chassis make it worth the price differential, especially for karaoke. If you are doing small shows, it is definitely the pick of the litter.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

2013 Kala KA-SMHT Tenor Ukulele Review


Over the past three years quite a few ukuleles have come through the studio, but not many of them stuck around. Some did not sound very good, and some were just physically unattractive. Two that made the cut were the Kala SMHS and SMHT, which are both great instruments and good values. So, when my wife needed a ukulele for a players' group / club, it made sense to pick up one of the newly designed Kala SMHT instruments.

The SMHT moniker is a good indicator of what you get with this ukulele. The SM means that this instrument is constructed of solid mahogany, not a laminate, which is a huge plus. The T stands for tenor size, and I have no idea what the H stands for. Maybe it means "hogany."

It is a classy-looking uke with a clear satin poly finish and faux tortoiseshell body binding and black & white purfling. This binding goes around both the top and back and it joins with another piece across the end seam of the body. I love that look! The purfling and rosette are new for this year.

The neck is also shaped from mahogany and it is capped with a nicely-grained rosewood fretboard. The craftsmanship of the 19 silver-nickel frets on this one is very good, but I have seen some newer Kala instruments with rough fret ends and damaged fretboards, so be sure you pick a good one. If you choose to buy online, make sure that there is a good return policy.

The most noticeable differences on these newer SMHT instruments are the slotted headstock and die-cast geared tuners. Not only do these changes make the uke look up-market, but the tuners also work very well. The inlaid bridge is made of rosewood and the saddle and nut are both made of synthetic bone.

This Kala is a well-made instrument, with an even finish, nice joints and a great action right out of the box. The routing for the newly-added purfling and headstock are flawless, which is nice to see at this low price point. And, I appreciate the fact that it looks like a classic uke, with no odd cutaways, inappropriate F-holes or bizarre features.

It also sounds very good! This solid wood tenor has a warm and full mid-range tone that is nothing like the tinny jangle that comes out of entry-level laminated instruments (I am very partial to mahogany ukes). If you are stepping up from a cheap uke, or even if you are just taking up the instrument, this is a great choice. You will only want something better if you are going pro or if you hit the lotto -- it is that good.

The best part about the new Kala SMHT is that it is a great value. It is dirt cheap (because it is imported), with an MSRP of $350, and a street price of around $250. Shop around online and you might even be able to get them to throw in a case and tuner for free. Try one and see what you think!


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review: Boston and Cheap Trick at the Forum in Inglewood, California


When I saw that the Boston tour was making a stop at the Forum in Inglewood, California, I had to go see them. There were no pre-conceived notions that this would be a super-great show, but I had never seen the band before and Cheap Trick was opening up for them, which is always worth the price of admission. Plenty of people think the same way, as this turned out to be a sold out show at the nicely-renovated facility.

To be honest, I did not even know that Boston was still together, nor that they had recorded a new album and were touring again. They band has pressed on after Brad Delp took his own life, having found Tommy DeCarlo on the internet to take on the singing chores and keyboard work, and he is pretty darned good. Of course, founding member and guitarist Tom Scholz still brought it to the stage, and the rest of the band was made up of guitarist Gary Pihl, Tracy Ferrie on bass, Kimberly Dahme on rhythm guitar, and god only know who was behind the drum kit. On guest vocals was American Idol finalist Siobhan Magnus, who also happens to be the niece of Ferrie.

Boston tore out a nearly two-hour set with over 20 songs, and it was actually pretty good. There were a few songs from their new album, Life, Love & Hope, but they mostly gave the crowd what they were looking for, which was all of their good stuff from the 1970s and 1980s. I do not know anybody who bought their newest album, do you?

Right out of the gate they hit it hard, starting off with “Rock and Roll Band,” “Smokin’,” and “Feellin’ Satisfied.” Scholz still has his distinctive chops (can you believe he is 67?) and his harmonization with Pilz was classic Boston. The band was tight, the vocal harmonies were good and DeCarlo was in top form. I have no complaints about their musicianship or their stage show.

The show did drag on a bit, and the few songs they did from their new album were certifiable yawners, but they played almost everything from their got-to-have-it double album. Boston did not leave out their gems, including “Peace of Mind,” “It’s Been Such a Long Time,” “Don’t Look Back,” “Amanda,” “More Than a Feeling” and “Long Time.” This was fortunate and made up for the sometimes ponderous pace.

It turned out that Boston’s performance was actually worth the price of admission. So, Cheap Trick’s set was like icing on the cake. I have seen them quite a few times over the past 30 years as they performed with bands such as Night Ranger and Aerosmith, and they have never disappointed.

They have been doing the same act for so long that you would think they would tire of it, but they still bring plenty of energy to each show. Robin Zander sounded way better than he did last year with Aerosmith, and at 61 he is showing no signs of slowing down. Rick Nielsen is still a total goofball, and his guitar skills have not faded. Tom Petersson did a passable job on bass, though I wish he had left the solo out. And there was a surprise behind the drum kit as Bun E. Carlos has stomped off and is suing the band, so Nielsen’s son Daxx was on the skins, and it was immediately obvious that Carlos made a mistake. Daxx is a much better drummer, and Bun will not be missed. Hah!

Cheap Trick mostly focused on their hits during their one-hour set, and they really brought their A-game. They included crowd favorites such as “Ain’t that a Shame,” “Surrender,” “Dream Police,” and I Want you to Want Me.” Every new rock band that is hitting big should be required to see a Cheap Trick show, or better yet, have to take them on tour with them so they can teach them what a real rock show is all about.

So I have to call the evening a success. If you have the chance to see Boston, see them. If Cheap Trick is on the bill too, definitely go see them. Trust me!


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: Bullets over Broadway, the Musical at the St. James Theatre in New York City


If you love musical theatre, you owe it to yourself to see at least one show on Broadway in your lifetime. No matter how good the shows are that you have seen, nothing compares to how tight of a performance you will see in New York City. This is the place that actors, dancers and musicians aspire to perform, and when roles are filled only the best are selected. Also, after a show had played for a few months, there are no silly mistakes and the sound is completely dialed in. It makes for a complete audio and visual experience.

Whenever I travel to the Tri-State area, I always make a point to get into the city to see a show, and last month I got to check out Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway, the Musical at the St. James Theatre on 44th Street next to Sardi’s. This 1700-seat house opened in 1927, and it is an interesting place to see a show. The seats are tiny, and legroom is tight, and if you are in the balcony there are oodles of steps to walk up, and no elevator in sight. Luckily our show was not sold out, so we could spread out a little in the balcony. It is a cool theatre, though, with great acoustics and pretty good lines of sight, not to mention $18 cocktails.

Bullets over Broadway is based on Woody Allan’s 1994 film of the same name. The film had an all-star cast and was well-received, with seven Academy Award nominations (and Dianne Wiest winning for Best Supporting Actress), and positive critical reviews. I don’t think it did so hot at the box office, but that was not enough to keep Allan from seeing how well Mel Brooks did with The Producers, and taking a shot at making it a Broadway musical.

The show opened at the St. James in April of this year, and the plot follows fairly closely to that of the movie. The show is set in the late 1920s in New York City, and it is the story of a playwriter (David) who gets his show financed by agreeing to hire a gangster’s girlfriend (Olive) to be one of the leads, even though she cannot act. The show is terrible, but the woman’s bodyguard (Cheech) makes suggestions to improve the play and ends up rewriting the whole thing. This story has everything: dancing girls, adultery, violence, betrayal, substance abuse and eating disorders. What more could you ask for?

Woody wrote the movie and adapted it for the stage musical, and the production is directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman and produced by Julian Schlossberg and Letty Aronson. They took the easy route on the score, and used popular songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Musical Supervisor Glen Kelly adapted these songs and added some lyrics here and there. Meh.

Almost everything is there for Bullets over Broadway, the Musical to be a hit. The Santo Loquasto sets are first rate, with a great rotation of elements that come up through the floor. William Ivey Lon’s costumes are gorgeous, and the lighting and sound are spot on. The audience can see and hear everything perfectly, unless they cannot see around the person in front of them, of course. They even had a dog and a Model A Ford that cruised around the stage!

There is a huge cast working on this show, including a 19-piece orchestra under the direction of Andy Einhorn, a 16 member ensemble, a 7 member chorus line and 22 credited cast members. God know how many crewmembers are behind the scenes.

They did not skimp on the cast, and they got Zach Braff to take the lead part of David Dhyne, and Vincent Pastore to play the gangster, Nick Valenti, and Nick Cordero to play Cheech. This is Braff’s Broadway debut and he did very well, with good acting skills and passable dancing and singing. Pastore’s acting was wooden and singing was terrible, but he was supposed to be a gangster, so he gets a pass. But Cordero’s portrayal of Cheech stole the show – he has stage presence galore and is on his way to bigger and better things. The female roles were more secondary, which is not surprising in a Woody Allan production, but all performed their parts flawlessly.

It was disappointing that they could not be bothered to write original music for a Broadway show, but that is the only criticism that I have. It is much faster-paced and more exciting than the movie, and I think the story translated well to the stage. It certainly is funny and entertaining, which is a nice outcome from an evening at the theatre!

I think it is worth your time to check it out Woody Allan’s Bullets over Broadway, The Musical if you are in the New York City area in the next month. It is supposed to close on August 24, and who knows what the future plans are for the show. It might be too big to take on tour....


Friday, August 8, 2014

Once at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, California


I am fortunate to have the opportunity to see many musicals each year, and not all of them are winners, but many are very good and some are winners. We saw the touring production of Once at the Pantages Theatre on opening weekend, and it was one of the winners.

The Pantages is a real throwback and is one of the oldest theatres in the Los Angeles area. It opened in 1930, and survived the transition to a movie house and back to a regular theatre, and it got a full restoration about 10 years ago. This is a huge theatre, which plays a bit into how this show is received.

Once is a pretty new show that is based on a 2007 film of the same name. It is a story of unrequited love between two young musicians who have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives. Their relationship cannot go anywhere, but the true beauty of the story is in the caring they show for each other. Set in Dublin, there is an undercurrent of conflict due to diversity of the population, and this plays in to the story as well.

John Carney’s film was very good, but it did not have a big budget and did not get a lot of traction in its original release, but it did come away with an Academy Award for best song with “Falling Slowly.”. It Broadway incarnation got the full treatment under the direction of Diane Paulus, with a book by Edna Walsh and music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova, and it went on to win 8 Tony Awards in 2012. Supposedly the story is based on the relationship between Hansard and Iglova (the stars if the film) – believe it or not.

I was warned ahead of time to show up early for the show and was a little gobsmacked to see a lot of the audience on the stage. The set is a bar, and the audience was invited up to buy drinks and be entertained by the musicians onstage. After the audience was shooed away the musicians remained, and it turned out that they were the actors and musicians for the show. By the way, the audience was invited up again at the intermission.

The bar set took up the entire stage and remained up for the who show. It has mirrors everywhere so the audience did not miss any of the action on the stage. Small scenic elements were brought on and off the stage to transform it into a home, a recording studio, and a bank. The actors were the musicians, and when they were not in the scene they would sit off to the sides and play the melodies as needed.

The cast was incredible, and they were all first rate singers and musicians, and they all had great stage presence. The leads were played by Stuart Ward (Guy) and Dani de Waal (girl), and they were convincing actors with tremendous voices (plus they played a mean guitar and piano, respectively). The other 11 members of the cast portrayed the girl’s family and the town’s people and they fleshed out the rest of the story nicely. John Tiffany directed this production with Martin Lowe as musical director and Steven Hoggett as choreographer.

The rest of the pieces all fell into place for this one. The costumes were simple, but worked, and the lighting from Natasha Katz was remarkable. The songs are all very solid and heartfelt, and for a change the sound in the house was very good. The Pantages is a huge hall that is tough to fill properly with sound, and this is the closest they have gotten in recent history. Once has a quiet and intimate feel, and it would really be better suited to a smaller venue.

Once is a charming show, and there is a good reason why it won all of those Tony awards -- it could be the best new musical of the decade. From the cast to the music to the staging they got everything right on this one, and you should make the time to see it if you get the opportunity.

Your chance to see Once at the Pantages in Hollywood is almost over, as it closes on August 10, but this is a touring company that has a lot of stops left (including San Diego and Costa Mesa for you locals) so you still have the chance to track it down and see it for yourself.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

2006 Ernie Ball MusicMan Bongo Bass Guitar Review


MusicMan Bongo basses have been out for more than ten years, and they are still one of the least well-known basses around. Though they are not common, but they are used by gods of the bass community, including Tony Levin, Dave LaRue, Jack Williams, Chuck Ward and Ben Alsup. Today we are looking at a lovely 2006 model that made its way through here earlier this year.

The Bongo bass was a fresh design that was a collaborative project between Music Man and BMW. The first thing that you will notice is that the shape of the body and the headstock is distinctive. By going outside the usual P/J shapes they ended up with an instrument that is ergonomically comfortable to play. The bodies on these are made of basswood (bass wood!) because it provides good tone, and also because it is a bit lighter than other woods. This is helpful because the electronics package can be pretty heavy.

The neck is a conventional 34-inch scale, with 24 high-profile wide frets. The neck on this one is rosewood, but fretless models get pau ferro and Stealth models get ebony. The fretboard is inlaid with cool little c’s, and the compensated nut is 1 5/8-inches wide. Of course the truss rod has the usual Music Man truss rod adjustment wheel at the heel for easy set-up changes. The five-bolt neck plate allow for an aggressive cut-out to access the higher frets. Who uses those frets, anyway?

The pre-amplifier and pickup packages are where the real magic happens on the Bongo basses, as they can be made to sound very aggressive. They have an 18-volt pre-amp, and the pickups use neodymium magnets. With the 3 or 4-band equalizer, almost any tone can be dialed in. There are plenty of pickup choices, including single humbucker, double humbucker and a humbucker/single coil combination. You can also throw in a piezo bridge as an option. This bass is equipped with a single humbucker with a 3-band EQ, which is my favorite option for these basses.

This particular bass is a very nice California-made 2006 Music Man Bongo 4 H. It is finished with a glossy Desert Gold (orange) poly on the body and a matching satin finish on the neck. The craftsmanship is exactly what I expect for an instrument that comes from the folks in San Luis Obispo. It is first-rate! This one is a little on the heavier side -- newer Bongos are lighter thanks to the lightweight tuners they started using a few years ago, but this one has the original style Schaller BM high-mass tuners so it comes in at just a touch over 9 pounds.

As I said the single humbucker combination is my favorite Bongo configuration, and this is due to its simplicity and versatility. With judicious use of the EQ knobs (do not dime them out!) I have been able to achieve any kind of tone that I need with minimal effects usage.

It is a shame that these do not sell very well, because Bongos are some of the best basses around. I guess too many players are stuck in 1960, and cannot get past the whole Precision/Jazz Bass mindset.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Album Review: Tokyo Tramps – Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the July 4, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Tokyo Tramps – Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour

Self release through Vagabond Entertainment

12 tracks / 52:23

During my travels to Japan I have had the opportunity to hear quite a few Japanese blues and jazz groups over the years, and one thing is consistently true: they are among the most technically proficient musicians I have ever run across. The professionalism and work ethic of these bands is amazing, and it humbles me each time I see them perform in a festival or some obscure off-street club.

Well, you do not have to strap yourself into an airplane seat for twelve hours to experience this phenomenon for yourself, as the Tokyo Tramps have made Boston their home base. Their latest release, Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour, is a real peach and I really enjoyed getting to know this piece of work.

All of the members of the Tokyo Tramps are from Japan, and until recently they performed as a trio with Satoru Nakagawa on guitars, vocals and accordion, his wife Yukiko Fujii on bass and vocals, and Kosei Fukuyama on drums, vocals and percussion. They all came to the United States with different musical dreams, and in 1998 they met up in Boston where their energy and abilities clicked and turned into something special. With the addition of saxophonist Junpei Fujita, they are now a quartet, and they play about 100 shows per year around the Tri-state and New England area.

Their sixth album, Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour, is named after Rockland, Massachusetts, where the project was recorded. All twelve tracks are originals that were penned by Nakagawa, and each is very well-written. This release kicks off with “Good Morning Marietta,” which is a hammering good time with a Louisiana-style drum beat. The vocals are a treat, with Nakagawa’s throaty roar contrasting with Fujii’s sweeter voice. The bass and drums are perfectly in sync and Nakagawa lays down one heck of a good guitar solo.

Fujii takes over the lead vocals on “Empty Pockets,” and I guess this is a good time to point out that though the Tokyo Tramps are from Japan, all of these songs are in English. There is a slight accent to be heard, but I find this characteristic makes the music more interesting and helps it stand apart from what other groups are recording today. Anyway, this song is also the first appearance of Fujita’s horns, and overall this song has more of a sparse feel which allows the listener to hear the traditional blues lyrical themes of lost love and not enough money to go around.

“The Ghost of Old Love” is a slow blues rocker with Nakagawa howling the lyrics with true feeling. Under this, Fujii and Fukuyama set up a tight groove to act as a foundation for the impressive melodic guitar solo work. I had to listen to this song over and over to get all of the nuances, which gave me an appreciation for all of the work that went into cutting this track.

The style and tone of the southern rocker “I’m Moving On” pays homage to the time that Nakagawa spent in Louisiana when he first moved to the states. It goes without saying that you will hear these influences in the lyrics of “Going Back to New Orleans” as well. If you are a musician and have the luxury of picking an American hometown, the Big Easy would be a great choice.

My favorite track on the album is “Papa’s My Number One Fan,” a fast-moving rock and roll song which contrasts nicely with the sweet message of Fujii’s lyrics. I hope this is autobiographical because it is a heartwarming story! Nakagawa and Fukuyama go all out on this one, giving it a super groovy beat.

“A Quiet Evening” is the final track on the CD and is a nice laid-back way to bring the album to a close. Nakagawa’s voice and distorted slide guitar are the stars on this song, which has a mellow background of brushes and a spare bass line. This mood and sad lyrics are exactly what the blues should sound like, and defines what this album is all about.

Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour is an exceptionally good album, and with the Tokyo Tramps’ writing and performance skills it is only a matter of time until they get signed. Their music is good enough that I have integrated a few of these tracks into my party mix, which is an exclusive club. If you check out one of their performances or listen to their latest CD you will see what I mean!


Sunday, August 3, 2014

2008 Epiphone Les Paul Custom Silverburst Electric Guitar Review

Hi there!

I am as much of a guitar snob as the next guy and am often quick to sniff at a cheap instrument and buy something more expensive on general principle, but this imported Epiphone is no joke. Today we are looking at an Epiphone limited edition Silverburst Les Paul Custom guitar that was only sold for a brief time in 2008. The quality of this instrument is impressive, especially when comparing it to the guitars that Gibson is crapping out of its American division.

The Custom has always been the top of the Les Paul line-up, and this one is a tribute to the original Silverburst instruments that were made from 1979 to 1985. The vintage Silverburst Les Pauls have been the go-to axe for Adam Jones from Tool, so they have developed a cult following and they are stupidly expensive now.

Les Paul Customs are set apart from the Standard models by more intricate inlays, as well as multi-ply body binding. This Epiphone got these adornments, but not the usual gold-plated hardware (thankfully).

Other than the color, the specs are fairly standard for an imported Les Paul. It has a mahogany body with a carved alder top, which is surprising considering that these usually have maple tops. The 24.75-inch scale set neck is mahogany, which is normal, but differs from the maple necks on the original Silverburst Les Pauls. The whole thing has a coat of thick poly and the silverburst fade is only on the front. The back is glossy black, while the originals were Silverburst back there instead.

The neck has a 1 11/16-inch wide neck, and a fairly fat profile. The rosewood fretboard has trapezoid pearl inlays, and it has an evenly applied cream binding. The headstock carries the 5-ply binding over from the body, and it is equipped with chrome Grover sealed-back tuners. In case you care, there is a diamond mother of pearl inlay on the front of the headstock, and an Epiphone Custom Shop Logo on the back.

The rest of the hardware is standard fare, with a chrome Tune-o-matic bridge with a stopbar tail piece and a multi-ply black pickguard. And the electronics are just about what you would expect on an Epiphone. These Customs come with plain-Jane Alnico humbucker with the usual Les Paul 2 volume / 2 tone knobs set-up.

In the end, this turns out to be an acceptable collection of parts, and Epiphone’s Chinese (or Korean, I am not sure which) factory did a fab job of sticking them together. I am continually astonished that the public continues buying $2500 Gibson Les Pauls with lumpy fretboards and hillbilly smile frets when there are much better alternatives out there for less money.

This Silverburst Les Paul Custom has a nice neck with perfect frets and a pretty low action with no fiddling around or modifications. It has a C profile and its thickness is right in the middle between the 50’s and 60’s neck profiles that are so popular. This translates into a lot smoother playing experience for me, which is worth a bunch because I am a horrible guitarist.

The tone is good enough if you are looking for the classic blues/rock sound, especially with the selector in the middle position. It certainly could benefit from better pickups and wiring, and I think a set of Burstbuckers (maybe out of phase) would be magical in this guitar. If you are going for the full Tool mod, Jones says he uses a Seymour Duncan JB at the bridge, though I have my doubts that he is being truthful, and without an ebony fretboard it just will not sound the same anyway…

As far as weight goes, this one is right in the ballpark for a Les Paul, coming in at around 9 ½ pounds, which is lighter than the Telecaster I am playing right now. Then again, maybe that says more about how ungodly heavy my Telecaster is.

When this run of Epiphone Silverburst Les Paul Customs was originally on sale their street price was around $600 (with no case), which is pricy for an Epiphone Les Paul. But nowadays they go for around $400 to $500, which is a good price for a nice guitar. By the way, Epiphone is now selling a Custom Pro Les Paul in Silverburst, but I have not had a chance to try one out yet. When I do, I will let you know!


Saturday, August 2, 2014

3rd Quarter of 2014 Inventory Update

Hi there!

I forgot to post the inventory update on July 1st, but better late than never – here is the quarterly list of what is stacked up around my studio these days. Things had gotten crowded so I moved a few things along, but there are still a few things on the chopping block for someone else to enjoy. If you see anything here that you cannot live without, drop me a line. It is all good stuff…

First off, the basses:

∙ Sadowsky NYC Ultra Vintage P, and NYC Standard J

∙ Westone Thunder 1 and Thunder 3

Electric Guitars:

∙ MIJ Fender 1962 re-issue Stratocaster

∙ Epiphone Sheraton II

∙ Epiphone Silverburst and Zakk Wylde Les Paul Customs

∙ 1990 Gibson Les Paul Standard

∙ Gibson Explorer – out of paint shop prison and back together again. I can hardly wait to show it off!

Acoustic Guitars:

∙ Martin D-17, D-18 Golden Era, LXM, and Backpacker steel string

∙ 1974 Ibanez 512 mandolin

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


∙ Orange Micro Terror with Orange 1x8 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 October to see what is still around. As always, you know it will be different!