Here are some goals I have around guitar and I guess music in general:
I love pedals. I really do. Each one does something different and I’m always so curious to hear what each little box has to offer. Even after selling off quite a few these past few months, I still think I have plenty. This year, I’d really like to learn more about each one and it has to offer. I’m sure that if I turn a couple knobs and flip a couple switches I will definitely get some more cool sounds out of each one. This goal isn’t really to limit myself, but actually to expand what I can do with what I have. *Doesn’t apply to anything that’s in the mail, given to me, any pedals that I build/mod myself(!!!), or gear that is not a pedal;)
Relearn some basics –
Call it being busy, call it being lazy, but I’ve lost a lot of the fundamentals of guitar playing. From complex chord shapes to even scales, I’ve let playing the same songs week after week get in the way of basic musicianship, which has gotten in the way of my next goal…
Get better –
When I first started on electric guitar, I felt like every week I was improving significantly. Unfortunately, my skill seems to have hit a plateau. I’d really like to keep this part of my life exciting and energizing- something that stimulates me and brings me joy. I want my creativity to be challenged, so I’m really looking forward to trying to achieve this goal.
Play meaningful music –
Maybe I’m not going to be the next Bob Dylan and my music is not going to spur any sort of cultural revolution. Still, I know first-hand the power of music and the messages it can send. Really hope to share something with the world that means the world to me.
Teach others –
It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to teach music to anyone, but recently I’ve done a little more and have enjoyed it so much! This whole blog was started because of how grateful I was that others would take the time to teach me, let me borrow their gear, and help me grow as a guitarist and musician. I really hope that I can do the same for others.
With these goals, I’m hoping that they’ll help me to achieve one big main goal: play more guitar in 2020.
Merry Christmas ya filthy animals. A quick note to anyone looking forward to the next pedal post! Which at this point is like, 2 of you.
The end of the year is fast approaching and I STILL haven’t finished my series of posts on my pedal board refresh… Well you’re probably going to have to wait even longer. The whole point of the series was to figure out the effects and tools that I love and deem essential to how I play guitar and then to share my findings. I’ve loved getting to play through a lot of different pedals and I’m finally starting to narrow down my personal must-haves and off-loading everything else. The collection has downsized significantly. Some of you will be saddened to know that since my first post about the HX Effects and HX Stomp, I’ve actually sold the HX Effects! I realized that everything that I was using it for could be done with the Stomp, so long as I thoughtfully programmed everything. Already, I’m seeing my board shrink in size without sacrificing any tone (meaning more room for other goodies). The more I use it, the more I realize how powerful the HX Stomp is. Killer little unit.
These are the decisions I’ve been making for a while now and after a certain point I realized that I might as well head back to the drawing board. I’ve had a bit of break from heavier electric playing, and was able to throw together a fun, temporary holiday board too (shoutout again to Bill Van Loo for the awesome wooden board) while working on this main project. It’s still under construction, but I am so excited to share it with anyone who wants to read about it and hear it in the coming year. This time around, I wanted put more focus on effects that really bring me joy and that I love. I’m definitely going to dedicate an entire post to it, but let’s just say that I’m excited to tell you about the effect that I’ve really GAINed an appreciation for over the year;)
A quick tip to make this post possibly worth someones time, I relied very heavily on online pedal board planners to really thing and plan out this project. This allows you to virtually plan out the board you envision with multiple sized boards and many different pedals to arrange and rearrange in any configuration you can think of. I started with pedal train’s but quickly realized that their slat system was a limitation I wanted to move away from. Check out pedal playground, which has a large library of boards of different sizes, as well as an impressive selection of virtual pedals. Even the folks at Temple Audio have one specifically for their boards! Great tool, but be careful because you could easily get lost for hours playing around and dreaming of different tone combinations (I did).
I’m making a list of goals I have for gear/guitar/music that I will post here soon. Think of it as my musical new year’s resolutions, but don’t call it that in case I can’t handle the pressure of keeping/breaking them.
I know, I’ve been talking about sharing my experience with the Line 6 HX products for ages. But after some major firmware updates, I think now is the perfect time to finally reveal why the HX Effects and the HX Stomp are so integral to my rig(s).
The HX Effects was the first of the two units that I obtained. I was still in grad school, just started becoming more serious about my electric guitar playing and had only scratched at the surface of guitar gear. Years ago, I had previously heard friends play through a big box multi-effects unit but was unimpressed by how digital and tinny they sounded. To me, they did not come close to the real effects and pedals they were trying to emulate. Recent advances in modeling technology, from the likes of Kemper and the Line 6’s own Helix series, re-ignited my interest, but I was still using a traditional amp and mic’d speaker setup for basically everything I did so full rig replacements like the Helix wouldn’t have worked for my needs. However, the HX Effects, or HXFX, piqued my interest because of all the included effects models and features. I found a discounted open box unit near me, traded in some other gear I had been wanting to unload, and ended up bringing home the HXFX for just a little bit over 100 dollars. Got ‘em.
I was immediately attracted to the design of the HXFX. As I unboxed it, it felt very sturdy, there weren’t an overwhelming number of buttons and dials, and it has a really clean look. However, as I continued removing the contents of the box, I was struck by the absurd power supply. It made sense to me that a product like this would need more juice than a normal 9-volt battery or pedal power adapter, and therefore require a larger power supply. However, it takes up so much space and could unnecessarily block off other power outlets. I’m still wondering why Line 6 couldn’t have just used a similar power adapter as the M series. That power brick was way less obnoxious. Of course, this started off as a minor inconvenience but grew to be a huge annoyance, but more on that later.
Anyway, as soon as I stuck the HXFX between my Strat and Blues Junior, I was flying through the menus, trying out all the different effects options. It was so easy and intuitive to switch between different types of effects and tweak each one to my heart’s content. I was very glad that I could choose from a whole host of classic overdrives and explore modulation for the first time. Line 6 also developed some pretty killer sounding delays and reverbs of their own, which are all included. Not to mention the fact that you can have multiple verbs on at the same time, so you can create very expansive spacey sounds, if that’s the vibe you’re going for. At some point I might’ve been interested in something like the Strymon Timeline and Big Sky, but for now, this more than meets my space/time-based effect needs. More recently, I’ve been able to explore the onboard effects loops and that’s proven to be immensely useful for adding in other pedals to the chain and increasing the overall functionality. Perhaps the biggest game changer was the ability to easily set and change presets. Instead of tap dancing to engage/turn off a bunch of pedals, now I can hit one switch and have a completely new sound. Makes things easier for a klutz like me.
Having all these options would mean nothing to me if none of them sounded good, but thankfully I have not had any problems with the quality of any of the effects. To my ears, most, if not all of them sound great! I did a very quick and unscientific comparison of my TS808, Klon KTR, and most recently, my Timmy with the equivalents onboard the HXFX. The sounds were not exact copies and I had to really work on dialing in things to get as close to the same sound as possible, but if I were blindfolded, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Which leads me to my current belief about modeling technology: it’s not perfect or the same as the real thing, but it is VERY close. In fact, you can go online and find numerous blindfolded test videos of people who really can’t tell a difference. For someone like me, who doesn’t even know what some of these legendary pedals sound like in real life anyway, this is just fine.
The HX Stomp has all of the same effects, so I won’t repeat much of what I’ve already said. However, the Stomp also adds amp and speaker cab modeling, like in their full-on helix line of products. This is the real game changer for me. Living in apartment buildings or with other people is not conducive to playing through a hot tube amp, so the headphone output really comes in handy. More and more, places that I play at require me to go direct, instead of a mic’ed amp setup. It’s great to be able to go directly out of the Stomp to FOH and choose from a huge selection of amp and cab models. Still, I can’t help but be curious as to how the Stomp will sound coming out of Line 6’s powercabs…
Another way that I use the Stomp is as an audio interface. Connecting the stomp to a laptop, I can easily use it with my DAW of choice to record some quick tracks. One gripe about the Stomp: it’s not as user friendly as the HXFX. With the HXFX, I felt that I could easily fly through the menus and choose the effects I wanted and assign them to switches. With the Stomp, I find it to be a bit more cumbersome; almost like it was lacking some buttons to press. However, with both the HXFX and HX Stomp, dialing in tones and editing presets is extremely easy when connecting to a computer with HX Edit installed. This is a routine part of my weekly prep for worship team music. Given the extreme portability of the Stomp I think this is a very small sacrifice.
Speaking of small size, the Stomp is so easily incorporated into rigs, it’s ridiculous. It has so many input/output options, even with a tiny chassis. I can throw it on my main rig, or I can just as easily pop it onto my home board or fly rig if I don’t need a large setup. Be aware of the power supply constraints though! If you’re like me and really hate Line 6’s power supply, you can get around it by using various pedal board power supplies to power the HXFX and Stomp. These are not officially supported by Line 6, so don’t blame anyone but yourself if your gear gets fried or doesn’t get enough juice. If you’re curious, I’m using a Cioks DC7, and the appropriate power cables to power the stomp and HXFX. Basically, I’m using two power outputs on the DC7 to power the HXFX and another two outputs to power the Stomp. I will write up a more comprehensive guide to my power methods, because I think that will actually be useful to share, unlike the rest of the junk I post.
One thing that I absolutely love about pedals is their timelessness. A classic blues breaker or tube screamer circuit never seems to go out of style. However, the same can’t be said for some of these big box digital modeling offerings. Cutting edge technology becomes obsolete rather quickly, and with the HX stuff, I’m sure it won’t be that different. Still, I feel like Line 6 has done a great job of developing and releasing updates for the HX gear. Not only to fix bugs, but also to add features as well! With one previous update, many of the reverbs were made much wetter. It totally changed all of my presets, but after I took a listen, I was not at all mad. Many in the guitar world were absolutely thrilled with the most recent update that added the Tone Sovereign and Heir Apparent effects, Line 6’s take on the King of Tone and Prince of Tone. Personally, I’m thrilled with the Fullerton amp model released for the Stomp. Kudos to Line 6 for their support for these products and I just hope that it continues!
I use the Stomp in applications where stage volume from a real amp/speaker combo is not possible. I stick it right at the end of my rig: right after the HXFX and go direct to FOH from there. After this past Sunday on the worship team, I can’t help but think that I’m not taking full advantage of all the Stomp has to offer. Sure, it is somewhat limited in the amount of DSP power available and the number of foot switches available to change presets, but I’ve come to realize that I could still be using it for so much more. Because of this, I’ve decided to put together a tiny fly rig centered around the Stomp. I have not planned this out fully yet, but I’d like to keep it very simple, including a tuner, volume pedal, and probably a compressor… maybe a drive or boost ;). Stay tuned, it’ll be a cool little project.
I’d just like to end by saying that the current multi-effects offerings from manufacturers have come a long way from where they used to be. Size, usability, and sound quality for the money have improved greatly. Especially if you can find a good deal on used ones, the Line 6 HX Effects or HX Stomp would be excellent choices for guitarists looking for more effects without buying a billion pedals, or for those looking into amp/speaker modeling rigs. I would even argue that the HXFX could replace an entire pedal board. Stay tuned for more updates- I’m just scratching at the surface of what these toys can do. If you have questions about how I use the HXFX/HX Stomp, how they can be used, how to power them, please reach out. Let’s talk shop. I need more gear nerd friends. Next up, let’s talk about some real pedals…
It has been a long time since my last update! Life pulled a fast one at the start of spring and things haven’t really slowed down. In the past couple of months, some of my best friends got married, I moved into a house in Royal Oak, and I also ate peanut butter and I didn’t die. What a ride. I promise, throughout this crazy time of transition, I haven’t stopped playing guitar! Easter season, worship nights with IPM, a wedding, and of course, Sunday services- I’ve had plenty of opportunities to keep my chops fresh.
I’ve got to come clean though, I don’t know how much improvement I’ve had as a guitarist/musician in that time. Just a few months ago, it seemed I was learning a new lick or riff every other week. Now I’ve had to settle with weekly rehearsals and Sunday services, squeezing in practices where I can. These days, instead of crazy guitar adventures, my time seems to be filled with house projects. Instead of changing strings, swapping out pickups, or practicing hours a day, I find myself mowing the lawn, clearing out gutters, or mending fences. Don’t get me wrong, I also really enjoy all of these other things, but it’s just not where I expected to find myself.
But this is where the guitar stuff comes in. Perhaps you could sense this coming, but as I start this new chapter of life, I realize that I need to leave some things behind. DON’T WORRY I’m not giving up guitar. But as I packed all of my belongings in preparation for my move, I got rid of so many old clothes and other items that really were just sitting around, gathering dust. Naturally, I turned my attention to all the music gear I’ve amassed, especially effects pedals. Perhaps I got a little overzealous with the Marie Kondo-ing, but so far I’ve sold off a condenser mic, an audio interface, an old guitar, a couple pedals, even an old pedaltrain board, and the end is not in sight.
I don’t think any guitarist could ever turn down the opportunity to try out a cool piece of gear or stop searching for their next new sound. Ever since I starting getting more serious about electric guitar, I’ve been driven by a need to explore all of the tone possibilities that I could. As I learned about overdrives, compressors, reverbs, delays, modulation, shoot, even things like buffers, I sought to try out as many of these noise machines as I could. I fell in love with the way these stomp boxes could breathe new life into the sounds I was creating. Making this tone addiction even worse was the abundance of kind and talented musicians in my life who’ve lent me so many pedals to audition. The result was a large drawer under my bed, filled with pedals, each one sitting silently in the dark, waiting for the off-chance that I would need just that something extra to add to my tone. Sad. It would be a tragedy if these pedals didn’t find their way back to their original home or if I couldn’t make a buck or two off of them!
Don’t get me wrong! I still love pedals! I appreciate all of them for their different shapes/sizes, artwork, and of course sounds that they bring. Just the act of putting together a board is so enjoyable to me. In fact, in addition to my main pedal board, I’ll be keeping around other boards, like a tiny acoustic one and maybe a fly rig, but those will probably be their own posts for another time. Anyway, somewhere along the way I started figuring out my tone. That is, I realized which pedals created the sounds I liked, as well as the pedals that I simply needed to get the job done for the various ensembles I’m a part of. Since everything else in my life seems to be getting a reset of sorts, I’ve decided that now would be a good time for my main pedal board to get one too. To make things a little more fun and maybe even educational, I figured I’d share about this process in some posts over the next coming weeks.
The board that you see in the above picture is my main rig that has existed in some form for quite a while. You may have seen a couple of different things on here at some point, but in this current evolution, things are a mess. As my needs changed, and pedals got added or shifted, I got lazy and didn’t figure out a proper layout for each pedal. Sometimes, just trying to activate a switch turned into one big messy science fair. I mean, just look at my EP booster and red remote. Whose feet are going to be able hit those without knocking any knobs? OK, maybe most people could, but not my clumsy dogs. Also, the wiring job for the audio cables and power cables is a MESS and I can’t stand it. If you don’t agree, just look underneath. Or don’t. Maybe don’t. So for my first step, everything needs to come off. Clean slate. Fresh start. New beginning. Whatever.
For each of my next few posts, I’m going to go through each type of pedal that I use on a regular basis: drives, compressors, reverbs, delays, modulation, and other fun goodies. I’ll explain what made the cut for my main board and also highlight a few of my other favorites as well. If you follow my guitar instagram account, you might even find some audio samples of each of the effects I discuss. Maybe. That seems like a lot of work so we’ll see. Eventually, everything will go back on, with custom solderless audio cables and neatly managed power cables. I’ll also be unveiling a couple of other treats as well 😉 But for now, I have to prepare for a vacation that I’m about to take✌🏽. Keep an eye out for future posts, I’m really excited for this little series!
This is not meant to be a guide of any sort. Of course, I am not an expert when it comes to any of this. Over time, I’ve experimented and have been fortunate enough to figure out exactly what I want and need in my sound and I’ve just stuck with it. What works for me might not work for you. My biggest advice is to try things for yourself and figure out your own tastes. Rather than reading this as instructions for good tone, think of it as inspiration to try and figure out your favorite tone! Your rig might be way simpler or it might be way more complex. Either way you’ll have to experiment on your own. Have fun!
Fact: the stratocaster is an American icon. After I had outgrown my Squier Affinity Strat, I begged my parents for a real Fender strat, no more of that cheapo Squier stuff. This was around late middle/early high school, and being a huge Hendrix fan, I didn’t want just any Fender strat, I wanted a 60’s reverse headstock strat in olympic white. Oh baby.
At a recording session in high school I think we were called, “The Upside-down Christmas Trees” or “The Mercy Burkas?” It was a weird time.
At a recording session during my high school years. I think we were called, “The Upside-down Christmas Trees” or “The Mercy Burkas?” It was a weird time.
I know, the whole reverse headstock thing might be silly, but high school me totally dug it so I didn’t mind the jokes, like the one in this post’s title. To be honest, I still really dig it. Also, this was before Fender directly marketed the guitar as a limited edition Jimi Hendrix product and offered it in “ultraviolet” (purple), so I’m quite pleased that I didn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars more. Anyway, on to what this is actually about.
While my Fender strat was certainly a HUGE step up from my Squier, it certainly still sits at the lower mid-tier of Fender’s product line up. And yes, it’s made in Mexico, so it didn’t come with that “made in the good ol’ USA” sticker. Potentially unpopular opinion: where a guitar is made matters a lot less than what most people think. However, I don’t deny the difference in build/part quality between guitars of differing origin, and that’s where my modding journey begins.
Over the years, as my playing needs have changed, I’ve modified my strat to offer better playability and different sound signatures. If you know what you’re doing, modding can be a great way to change things up without dropping a ton of cash for a new guitar. From subtle improvements to complete overhauls, there’s lots of things you can do. In addition, I think it’s really cool to take an instrument and really put your own flavor into it. That’s part of the reason why I won’t move on from my reverse headstock strat; at this point, it is too “me” and I don’t want to get rid of it. Instead, I take care of it and change it up according to my current needs. I’ll go over some of the most impactful changes I’ve made, and you can decide if you want to try these mods. Take caution though: don’t blame me if anything goes wrong.
I’ll start off with some of the simpler stuff that I’ve done recently. I used to love a good glossy polyurethane finish. They can look so pretty and make something feel so smooth. But as I’ve gained more experience and spent more time on stages, I’ve learned just how sweaty my hands can get while playing. Add to that the hot and humid conditions of club or bar venues and I quickly realized that this moisture and glossy finish combo does not make for a good time. My sweaty palms frequently got caught on the glossy finish of the neck and I was not able to play with as much dexterity. I began bringing a microfiber cloth with me on stage, hanging out of my back pocket, to quickly wipe my neck down between songs, if and when I got a chance. This was not ideal. Solution: remove the glossy polyurethane finish, and refinish the neck with something sans gloss, but that would still protect the wood.
Here’s how I did it:
Prep: Start off by blocking off any crevices or cavities that should not have any particulate matter fall into it. This would be areas like the pickups, neck joint, etc. I just taped a plastic bag over it, sealing any potential entrances. I also removed the strings, just because I knew I would be doing a lot more work on other things later.
Sand: Start off with 500 grit sandpaper. Sand along the entire neck, applying pressure as evenly as possible. The lacquer will come off as a white powder. When there’s no more powder coming off and you start hitting wood, it’s time to stop and move on to a higher grit sand paper. Repeat process with higher grit sand paper. I think I went up to 1000, 1500, 1800, maybe 2400 as well.
Seal: Some people just quit after sanding to get a really smooth feeling neck. However, this leaves your neck wood prone to the elements, with absolutely no protection from moisture. Save yourself the headache, and refinish your neck. Combine a 50/50 mixture of shellac and rubbing alcohol. Apply to wood with a rag. It’ll dry quickly, so you won’t have to wait too long to apply 3 or 4 coats, total. Let that sit overnight, and then in the morning spend a little time going over it with some 0000 steel wool.
Voila, no more sticky neck. Shoutout to PG for the inspiration for this mod.
While I was doing this, I noticed how silly my neck plate looked. Over the years, I had sloppily carved in different designs, and later, after regretting it, opted to sand the entire thing to try and erase my mistakes. Man, I was a dumb kid. I reached out to my good friend, Cindy, who is a super talented graphic designer. Aligning with the theme of making this guitar my own, I asked her to use my initials and design a logo that I might be able to get etched onto a backplate. The result was fabulous. The design is superb: very modern but still super groovy. Luckily she knows me well enough because I really gave her no guidance in designing it. Finding the right engraving shop took a bit of time, but Engraving Connection in Plymouth, MI came to the rescue and did the job. They’re a tiny little shop that does great work for great prices, 10/10 would recommend. This aesthetic choice doesn’t affect playability or sound in the slightest, but it was a fun little side project and I love the way it turned out. I may experiment with decals on the headstock later, but I think this is a great start. It feels almost like I have my own signature guitar, and I didn’t have to get good or become famous to get it. HA!
If you’re like me and think this logo is super fresh, please give Cindy a follow on the ol’ Instagram @cindyyshaw and check out her website: cindyyshaw.com to see all of the super cool and cute stuff she creates!
Next, onto the pickups, but first, a little bit of backstory: I first switched out the original pickups sometime during undergrad. There was nothing wrong with them, but I had just wanted to explore different sounds and see what other single coil offerings were capable of. After I felt comfortable with a soldering iron (and a few gnarly burns), I plopped in a set of Fender Custom Shop 54’s to get a taste of what that original strat sound was like… Dirty. It was dirty. These pups are noisy, with more 60-cycle hum than acceptable, by my standards. However, the spank and bite of classic strat tones were undeniable. Beware: this means it’s also a little more thin sounding than more modern strat pickups.
When I started playing more at church, I very reluctantly began to move away from the neck pickup and venture into the bridge position. It was a huge shift for me, made even more jarring by the fact that I wanted a little more chime instead of twang in my bridge tone. A fantastic mentor of mine suggested the Seymour-Duncan Little 59, which was a single coil sized humbucker. Since it was my first time playing a humbucker, I was a little nervous, but the warmer, higher output tone was a fantastic option to get that newfangled P&W sound everyone goes on about. Besides that though, It’s addition provided a great deal of flexibility and I felt like I could get the best of both worlds with having both types of pickups on board.
Last August, I picked up a Reverend Charger 290 guitar with a completely different sound. The p90 style pickups are more than sufficiently chime-y for church stuff, so I almost always use it for that now. Lately though, I’ve really started to miss that unmistakeable single coil sound. Enter, Lambertones. I had heard through the P&W grape vine about the rising popularity of their pickups, so I decided to check them out. Sure enough, they had recently released their “Triple Shot” single coils. They sent them to me at the beginning of the year, but it’s taken me until now to put them in. I actually just finished the job and I’m quite pleased. The bridge and middle positions feel like a return to my roots of that 60’s style sound, but better. Flip the switch into the bridge position though, and you get another beast entirely. It is unbelievably spanky, and I LOVE IT. To my ears it definitely has a tele type vibe to it, and I’m curious if that was intentional. Either way, it adds another tonal variation to my palette, and I am not complaining.
Lastly, I did want to give a brief mention to some less glamorous but supremely important work. Don’t underestimate the value of a good set-up. Especially after such a harsh winter, give your instrument some love and give it a proper set-up. It’ll help with playability, intonation, buzz, etc. This time around, I opted for light gauge strings, as opposed to mediums, since I’m doing quite a bit more bending. I also floated the bridge! For so long I’ve left it in more of a hardtail position to preserve tuning, but I’ve been using it a lot more and I feel that it’s time to get LOOSEY-GOOSEY. I’d rather focus on playing and enjoying the dang guitar rather than staring at a tuner all the time, pursuing the myth of perfect tuning.
At this point, I think the only part of the guitar that I’ve left stock are the tuners, and that might change in the future as well. Tinkering is a fun way to experiment with different aspects of the instrument, but it’s no substitute for practicing and playing! That’s the best way to know exactly what you want and need from your instrument. If you’re ready to take that next step though, it can really open up a world of possibilities without having to drop a ton of cash for a new guitar. Just make sure you spend the time learning how to do things first, before you ruin a beloved instrument. All of this sounds like a lot of work, but realistically it probably could’ve been done in one weekend. This TLC couldn’t have come at a better time, as I’m about to head into a stretch of weekends of constant playing, performing, and serving, and I need my gear to be in good shape! I’ll have to play the Triple Shots for a bit more before making a final verdict, but I am so pleased with them already. After months of the strat being out of commission, it’s good to have it back in the rotation. Can’t wait for it to see more action!
There’s a reason why Thursday nights are some of my favorite parts of the week. In the midst of good and bad, I’m thankful to have places to worship with friends I love. Also, making great music and loud noises is never a bad feeling. “Loud is more good,” as some might say.
That’s it for the gross stuff, I also wanted to do a quick shoutout to the Line 6 HX Stomp. The reality of my current life stage is that I can’t always blast an overdriven amp whenever I want. Some living spaces/situations just don’t allow for that. To get around this conundrum, I’ve been on a long search for the perfect silent practice/silent stage solution. Don’t worry, I still don’t think anything can beat the feeling of a tube amp turned up hitting you right in the chest, but hey, a weekend rocker’s got to be practical too.
Tonight, I misplaced the power supply for my HX effects, which was a total bummer; I had so many reverbs and delays prepared. I quickly slapped together a patch on the Stomp and knew I needed to have an amp sim, a reverb, and delay of some sort. I hooked up the Stomp to my Macbook and quickly threw together the patch. I even got fancy and did a dual amp setup. Before I knew it, I was up and running with the rest of my pedal board. It didn’t sound terrible, either. I’ll have a full review up at some point, but tonight I can say that I definitely appreciated how fast I was able to set everything up and get playing. Spoiler alert, the amp sims on this little guy are no joke. I need to play this thing more, but stay tuned for the full review, this is sure to be a game-changer for how I make music.
***Just a quick disclaimer about this post and future posts like this, I’m a firm believer in the cliche saying, “tone is in the fingers.” Expensive instruments and gear can sound good, but it still needs a musician to make music. Granted, I’m only talking about cheap, tiny guitar picks this time, but it’s still worth noting that “stuff” will only get you and me so far in becoming better guitarists!
As a young child, the first guitar pick I ever laid hands on was a large piece of plastic, shaped like a Dorito. In fact, it had the Dorito’s logo on it and I’m fairly certain it was part of some promo that included a pick in every bag of chips. If you held it up to your nose, you could still make out the scent of powdered nacho cheese, which later transferred to some strings. KINDA GROSS.
Later, when I actually started learning guitar, I think my preference was to forgo the pick entirely. I love the natural and direct feeling of strumming with my pointer finger and thumb pinched together, as if holding an invisible pick. Also, in the right setting, fingerstyle affords so much control and flexibility.
However, playing with a pick offers a consistency in attack that using my bare hand can’t replicate. Shoot, for that reason I insist on tuning with a pick. Especially in any setting where a strummed guitar is amplified or captured, I try my best to remove any extraneous hand noise. Where mopping up my own sloppy technique has failed, picks have helped. In addition, I came to learn how the wide variety of sizes, thicknesses, shapes, and materials not only affect the feeling of the pick, but also my sound.
Over the years I’ve been able to try a plethora of different plectrums but here are three that have had significant impact on my playing:
I started with Fender 346 celluloid mediums, an ode to the Dorito pick. With celluloid, I got a nice warm tone and with mediums, enough heft for a goldilocks attack, not too hard hitting but not too light. The 346 shape meant that I could use it on any side, perfect for my awkward and inaccurate beginner hands. These picks were huge, which I reasoned would help me hang on to them. When I started leading worship and my hands would get sweaty, I used a hole punch to make a hole in the center to help even more with grip. Not sure if that’s recommended, but I did it. HA. With these, the fat triangle shape lent themselves to my wild, loosey-goosey strumming but I probably wouldn’t use these much for single note picking or lead lines.
Later on I stuck with Fender mediums, but this time opted for the more traditional 351 shape. I was still primarily an acoustic strummer, but I ventured more into single note and electric guitar territory. Also the colors were pretty. I stayed with these for the longest, but only because there was a period of time in college where I didn’t really play much guitar at all so I didn’t try anything new. Whoops. I still stick with this pick when I play acoustic!
I’m not sure exactly where I came up with my next pick (pun intended), but I’m pretty sure it was when I got a big dump of random picks when my good friend was moving away and getting rid of stuff. Most of them were thin and light nylons, not something I typically played with, but in the mix I did find a D’Addario Black Ice. This discovery coincided to my reemerging interest in the electric guitar. Perfect timing too. I was getting into more lead-type single note playing, and finding that the Fenders just played a little too nicely. For the duralin-made Black Ice, the 1.10mm thickness gave it some heft and prevented too much flexibility, while the matte finish gave ample grip, both for my fingers on the pick and for the pick on the strings. To my ears, this combo gives off a more aggressive attack: nothing too snarly, but still a good amount of bite without overwhelming pick noise. With the small size, fairly hefty duralin material, and moderate thickness, I love the feel and velocity I can achieve while doing some fast passages or even tremolo picking. Basically, Black Ice – 1.10mm: current fav. Also, extra points because my beloved first car was affectionately nicknamed black ice because it was black and could be dangerous at any moment, just like black ice. (bonus tip: once I accidentally got the .80mm, used a new one at a show and by the end of it, the pick was already permanently bent. Too much flex for my liking)
Wrap up thoughts:
To my ears, I’ve found that a different pick (or no pick at all!) can be one of the easiest and most inexpensive gear changes to alter my tone. How a pick feels in my hand and on my strings is so important in connecting me to the instrument. I’m glad I found the D’Addario Black Ice, which introduced me to the Jazz III style pick. I’m currently going through a sample pack of Dunlop Jazz III’s that included different sizes and materials. I’m looking for one with the same feel and thickness but a tad less pick noise. Also trying the Ernie Ball Prodigy. Very similar to the Black Ice/Jazz III, but with a sharpened edge for even faster, more aggressive picking. I’ll report back if something knocks off the Black Ice to take the crown as my favorite. Keep in mind that these are just my own personal tastes! For anyone out there also still looking for their preferred plectrum, don’t be afraid to try something new; you never know what you’ll find that will sound and feel great! If you’ve already got a favorite, leave some recommendations!
PS I’ve also been experimenting with a Gravity pick that came with a JHS pedal. Big red Dorito, unpolished, sharpened edge, JHS logo. Everyone is raving over them but I’m not finding them to be anything to write home about. Am I missing something?!?!
Do you remember the movie, School of Rock? Jack Black poses as a substitute teacher and turns his classroom of kids into a rock band. I remember it dropped when I was either in late elementary or middle school, and I along with many other little twerps like me, thought it was the coolest thing ever. I nagged my parents incessantly for a bass guitar until they acquiesced, but with the stipulation that I needed to learn how to play a six string first. Fine by me. I learned some chords, cool little riffs, and even started playing a basic 12-bar blues! Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about bass, but more on that later. Once I hit college, I still played and even led worship for the campus fellowship I was a part of, but definitely didn’t make time to hone my skills and learn something new.
Fast forward to 2018, I started to take guitar much more seriously. I had been in talks with the worship pastor at my church (shout out to Matt & Grace Ann Arbor) about playing electric guitar on the worship team, but I wanted to start with rhythm parts, since I didn’t feel confident about playing any lead type lines. I was excited but also a quite nervous about this, and knew I had to prepare well. I dug in and got to work. Constant practice and listening helped of course, but for me, what really got the ball rolling was the willingness of so many people around me to give advice on playing, dialing in appropriate tone, and choosing gear. I also borrowed A LOT of people’s pedals. In fact, I still have a lot of those borrowed pedals, so if you’re reading this and you need something back, my bad, just let me know and I’ll get it right back to you. HA.
Nowadays, my skills are still developing and I’m continuing to play at church, but also with other worship teams, bands, solo artists, etc. that previously I would have never even dreamed of meeting. There’s a wealth of knowledge, hacks, and of course, gear out there left for me to try, and I’ll keep working toward my goal of becoming a better musician and guitarist. I’ve had boat loads of fun emulating others’ tones and techniques, but I think it’s high time for me to also craft my own sounds. I’d like to document some of my experiences here because I’m incredibly grateful at how much others have shared with me to aid in my improvement. I’ll probably start off with more written blog posts, but eventually I’ll start posting some sound clips and videos too, since that might be more helpful. Perhaps more aspiring weekend rockers will benefit from this info, just as I did a year ago. Also, I guess I have too much time on my hands.
If you’re like me, know some basics and just want to learn as much as you can but don’t always know where to look, maybe this might help! If you’re already a hotshot pro banging out screaming solos, maybe you’ll just get a kick out of how long it took me to figure some of this stuff out. Either way, thanks for giving this a glance, enjoy!