Category Archives: Fender Stratocaster

Vox in a Box

Paranoid VoxoidFirst, the bad news: the real thing will set you back at least $1,600 new. At the low end. A true, working, vintage model will cost considerably more. Much more. And there’s nothing like the real thing.

The good news: you can fake it for considerably less.

We’re talking about the Vox AC30 amplifier, particularly the Top Boost model. In a field that seems dominated by Fender, Marshall, and Mesa/Boogie (the sort of holy trinity of clean, crunch, and gonzo) and their “inspirations,” Vox amps kind of sit off to the side. Which is funny because if you run an AC30 light, you get the lovely, clear, chimey midrange and sparking treble associated with the amp. Turn it up, and you get a rich, soulful crunch. Crank it over, and you get this fantastic, singing overdrive. The trinity, all in one. And none of it sounds like anything else.

That’s where it gets tricky: what exactly is that Vox sound? You’d think you could nail it by listening to AC30 players, but the amp’s versatility and quirkiness complicates that. This is an amp serving the Beatles, the Shadows, the Stones (in the Decca years), Tom Petty, Peter Buck, Ray Davies, Radiohead (Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Thom Yorke), Matt Bellamy, Dave Grohl, Braid Paisley, Tom Verlaine, the Yardbirds, and Brian May.

If one player serves as a Rosetta stone, it’s The Edge. Famously he’s said to have played a battered, 1964-era AC30 (in a Seventies cabinet) on every U2 album and concert. Not every cut, of course. At this point, The Edge can pretty much own any amp made, and he’s known to use Fender Deluxes, Fender Blues Juniors, Roland JC120s (like that’s a surprise), and a 50-watt Marshall. But, if you say his name to a guitar freak, an AC30 comes to mind. And there’s probably no better example of the classic AC30 sound as “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

There’s the delay, of course—part of The Edge’s signature. I believe he’s playing a Fender Stratocaster: those single-coil pickups add to the chirp. But it wouldn’t have quite the same…shimmer without the Vox. Chime, jangle, ring—whatever you want to call it: it’s more than just a clear treble. There’s a fullness and a warmth to a sound that otherwise could prove piercing. Somewhere, there’s a piano hiding inside that box.

That broad, balanced clarity carries through to AC30 players who run their amps hot. Brian May runs a whole backline of them, and obviously he cranks the hell out of them for that overdriven, “violin-like” sound, but, despite the gain, you can still hear the notes. You have to work pretty hard, slathering on the effects, to blur the AC30’s crystalline qualities (that’s you I’m looking at, Kevin Shields…even though even Shields dirties it up with Marshalls).

And maybe it’s no surprise that “effects” and “AC30” go together: there’s something the amp loves about delays, tremolo, reverb, and other modulation effects. A touch goes a long ways, but the amp holds its sonic fingerprint even…if you’re The Edge.

The amp also weighs about 50 pounds and can get seriously loud—very likely more than you’ll need in smaller venues. So it’s not really the amp for open mic night.

The good news is that the modelers and pedal designers have long had their eyes/ears on the AC30, and digital approximations have been built into many multieffects units—high and low end. Ersatz, perhaps, but it’s a start, and the technology continues to improve.

A better option, especially if you already have a tube amp, is to set it up to run as clean as possible and add a stompbox dedicated to replicating an AC30. Tech 21 make a well-regarded Liverpool box, and similar boxes include: the Martin AC-tone , the Menatone Top Boost in a Can  (come on, that’s a great name), the Xotic AC Booster, the Catalinbread CB30  (note: one of many gifted Portland guitar effects companies), and the Joyo AC (which only runs about $40…Joyo’s a whole story in itself).

I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the Boss BC-2 Combo Drive. They seem to have bottled a bit of the AC30 mojo in a unit that rolls from sparkle to roar (with a sweet crunch in the middle), and I think I hear just a bit of compression to add a tube dynamic, because AC30s are known for their responsiveness. It works okay by itself or with a solid state amp, but pair it with a clean, neutral tube amp, and you might find yourself wandering down Abbey Road. For a couple of hours. This video from guitarist Pete Thorn lays it out quite nicely: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nJZUU_ZJHzc (Hint: crank it up.)

Plus, you know, it’s hard to toss an AC30 in your gig bag. Your ears may be a little bummed, but your back will thank you.


Now he tells me!

So here I just had a birthday, and it never occurred to me that a splatterson should own a Splattercaster. Man. It’s not too late, loyal readers….*

*Not to be taken seriously.


365 Days of Being Experienced


It was almost exactly a year ago that, on a whim, I wandered into a Portland music store, saw a Fiesta Red Stratocaster, and went: I want that guitar.

Since then, we’ve been through some ups and down, Red and I. Some buggy electronics had to be fixed. The cord jack has been replaced. A tuner broke and had to be replaced, and eventually I may have all the tuners upgraded. I’ve switched to the marvelous Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings, who have allowed me to play some things I just couldn’t manage on middle-weight Fender strings. I added an effects box and a wah-wah pedal, and I’m thinking of buying myself a looper for my birthday. And I’ve gone from barely being able to play A, D, and E chords and not being able to strum to some facility in strumming and finally being able to play the dreaded B chord and some barre chords. And even eke out a little bit of lead. It’s been a journey.

Beginning around 1980, actually. I was in Southern Oregon for summer vacation between my sophomore and junior years of college, and a buddy of mine wanted to take a look at a Strat a guy in Gold Hill had for a sale. I offered to drive because I thought it’d be interesting (and to help a friend), and when we got there, the Strat was sitting on a stand in front of Fender amp (a Twin Reverb, I believe). When the guy plugged in and played what I now recognize as a minor pentatonic scale, my heart just turned over. That sound. As I recall, my friend passed on the guitar, but I thought seriously–seriously–about it. But I was a poverty-stricken college student and I just couldn’t let myself go for it.

The fork not taken. Now, I wonder how my life might have been different. Not that I’d be in a band or anything, but all the friends I might have made and good (or bad) times I might have had, because having a guitar–especially an electric guitar–changes you. It’s like the door to a another society. I never knew how many of my friends play guitars until I bought one, and suddenly people were saying, hey, let’s get together, man. And not just guitars, but drums, basses, keyboards. Having an electric guitar in your life becomes an organizing principle. Inevitably in life, you realize some things too late (about eight years ago, I realized another fork I missed, which was foregoing photojournalism for straight reporting, a choice that might have let me stay in journliasm while leaving my head free to write fiction). But then, as Tom Stoppard wrote, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Maybe one of those choices might have prevented me from becoming a playwright, which–as frustrating as that field is sometimes–I would very much regret not having experienced. The would-haves and could-have will only make you crazy, and there’s nothing you can do about them anyway.

As with any art, I’m finding that the learning process has slopes, plateaus, and downgrades. You work to achieve a certain facility, then you enjoy that awhile, and then you move on to the next step, only to find out the more you know, the more the complexity of your task increases. Next year this time, assuming I stick with it, I hope I’ll look back to now and shake my head at what little I knew. The current plan is to increase my facility in changing chords and learning some blues licks as to improve my meager lead vocabulary, along with the practicing required to actually play what I’m learning. Plus I’d like to spend more time playing with others because it exponentially jacks up the fun quotient (and makes you a better player, I think). Wisely, I think, I’m trying to keep my goals modest and attainable, because it’s failing to achieve those big leaps that can sometimes discourage you. Now, nearly every day I pick up the axe, I feel progress. That’s good for the soul

But the main thing is it’s still fun, despite some evening such as last night, when nothing worked and I was too tired to tune up properly, and it was just chaotic noise (as opposed to creative noise, which I’m rather fond of). And, unlike the kid who still kind of aches for that sunburst brown Strat with the white pickguard (I still see it in my mind’s eye), I have a lifetime of musical experience as a listener with broad and eclectic tastes to bring to the endeavor. Which is why I can have as much fun playing Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” as I do playing the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

So here’s to Leo Fender (and Les Paul, while we’re at it) and trying new (and old) things. I suppose this has been a year that’s changed my life, but, the truth is, they all do. Just some more than others. And thanks to the friends, family, teachers, and other compadres who have put up with my fumbling and stumbling and blown notes and excuses and apologies and who have graciously encouraged me, even when I was making noises that could cause small animals to shrivel and die.

S


Music is My Mardi Gras


Lately, I’ve been going through one of my Missing New Orleans periods. It’s inevitable for anyone who’s lived there any time at all because, really, there’s no other place like it, and I think the hot weather stirs the memories (cue Louis Armstrong’s “(You Don’t What It Means) To Miss New Orleans” or Tom Waits’ “I wish I was in New Orleans (in the Ninth Ward)”).

Scratching the itch, I watched Les Blank’s documentary “All for Pleasure” about New Orleans and it’s year-round carnival mindset, including a lovely section on how cook crayfish during which the cook pours a shoebox full of cayenne pepper in the boiling pot, and there’s a brief bit where this all-American guy’s looking out his window at a bunch of happy drunks wearing green bowlers for St. Patrick’s Day, and he turns to the camera and says something like, “You know, there ain’t no place in the world where you can do that. Where you can just drink beer in the street and throw your cans in the gutter. It’s a place where you can feel a little bit free.” And he says it with such love that, even though it’s absurd, if you’ve lived there and seen pretty much, well, everything, and accepted it with a shrug, warts and all, you can’t help but feel your heart turn ever so slightly.

Also, nothing ever gets done down there. The place is falling apart. It’s a lousy place for ambition and worse for consistency (excepting certain traditions, for which there are no exceptions…like hangovers for Lent). So, for an ambitious artist who finds himself working harder and harder and sometimes wondering why and why, you have to have a Mardi Gras for the soul. And, coming up on my first-year anniversary of playing guitar, I think I’ve found a little Mardi Gras I can carry with me.

That is, when I play guitar–and granted I still don’t play and probably never will play well–the world just kind of goes away…and can just fuck off, man. The other day, a buddy came over, brought his Ibanez with a Gibson/humbucker set-up, and we tried a couple songs, had some laughs, told some stories (some of which we’d both told before but listened through again), and then at some point we tried playing “Police on My Back” by The Clash, and suddenly, when we hit that chorus (“Monday, Tuesday…”), we both fell into the same rhythm pattern automatically, and it was like…groove. And we both sat back and went, hey! Like good drugs, you immediately want more.

It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to be good. Nobody’s starting a band or looking to make money. I’m a professional writer and a semi-professional photographer, and, believe me, that’s enough pro art for anybody. But it’s nice to synch into that moment and feel the flow. Which really is what the blues is all about and what I bought the guitar to learn.

It’s one thing to have music in your ears. It’s another to have it in your hands. It’s your own little Mardi Gras, and it’s all for pleasure.


Axe of Kindness

Last August, I was deep in the process of writing Bluer Than Midnight, a weird, noir-insprired two-act about The Blues, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Afterlife (no, really), when, taken with a wild notion, I went and bought a guitar because I figured, well, how can you write about the Blues from the inside without trying to play it? A quaint notion, but still….

Anyway, after a year of struggling with my Strat, I finally managed, this weekend, to play a Blues song above my usual profound level of lameness such that I enjoyed myself. It’s “You Gotta Move,” a Fred McDowell tune that the Stones covered on “Sticky Fingers.” I’d looked up the tabs on the Internet, but the key was a challenging one for me, so I actually, honest-to-God transposed it to a key I could play (that’s “A” boys and girls), and the pieces came together. Plus, the song’s within my extensive, five-note vocal range; so I could actually sing the goddamn thing without hellishly embarassing myself.

Afterwards, I kind of sat back in a fugue state, my left hand aching like hell because I ended up playing it nonstop for about a half-hour, and thought: “Damn…I really did it. I’ll be go to hell. I feel incredibly high.”

And then I tried to play something else and was immediately humbled.

The play’s more or less finished until it goes on to the next stage–a workshop or public reading–and I’m happy with it and looking forward to seeing where its journey next takes it. But whether it lives or dies, it’s given me a moment I’ll always remember.


Mixing Passions

So I’m in that puppy love stage with the new Canon G10 and kind of wanted to test its resolution and quality under optimum conditions; so I figured I might as well mix it with my other recent passion in the arts and photograph my Stratocaster. (It doesn’t move around much or complain that I’m taking too long setting up the shot.) Anyway, at the moment I’m very pleased with both.

Steve


Options


As I’ve noted on my blog, I recently bought a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, and I’m learning–slowly–to play. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of kinds of art: writing (obviously), photography, painting, drawing, playing piano and organ, garden design, making prints, stage directing, and even a half-assed attempt at sculpting. Though I’ve enjoyed all of these, writing and photography were the only two that I thought I showed any aptitude for. And, though I love photography and think I’ve grown in the field, selling a print now and then, and even having a couple of shows, I am and always have been a writer. (One day, when I was six, I sat down and wrote a short story. Something about living under the sea. Wish I still had it, but it’s vanished over the years. To me, the funny part was that I took it to my mom and demanded she type it up. I think she was a little taken aback, but she did type it for me. Unlike many artists, I had parents who always supported my efforts. I hit a fallow period between six and eight, and then I distinctly remember thinking, writing that was kind of fun: let’s try it again. So I wrote another short story, and another, and, pretty much, never stopped.)

When I bought the guitar–which I call “Red” because it is a shockingly pure candyapple red–the store provided a free lesson. The instructor was showing me how each fret represented a half-step, which clicked for me as it corresponded to a piano’s keys (and I can read music). I noted the similarity to the instructor, and he said, “Yeah. It’s like having six pianos.” (Which is really not true, because it takes two hands to make a chord on the guitar and one for a keyboard. You also can’t individually bend or vibrate a piano’s strings, but I digress.)

What has struck me are the seemingly infinite options for making sound the electric guitar offers, which I’m just starting to grasp as I’ve learned how chords are formed, how scales apply to solos, the many ways strings can be thumped, rubbed, stretched, and mauled, and the many voicings that emerge from which pickup you’ve selected (three on the Strat with two settings combining pickups), the pickup tone controls, the amp settings, and, in my outfit, with a nifty little foot-operated box called a Digitech RP50, the mind-blowing array of available voicings–from clear, ringing notes with a touch of reverb to create the feeling of playing in a large hall to absolutely demented, psychedelic overdrive, flangers, phase-shifters, noise gates, delays, and various amplifier modulators. You can make it sing, cry, scream, and simulate jet aircraft. It’s absolutely marvelous. I’ll be deaf in no time.

One evening, after playing some teeth-rattling distortion, I just kind of reeled, overwhelmed by athe choices the guitar offered, and I suddenly thought of a favorite quote from Miles Davis, which has actually informed my writing as much as my understanding of music: it’s not just the notes you play, Miles said, it’s also the notes you don’t play.

Which seems obvious, but it lies at the heart of making art, for we’re offered so many techniques, colors, effects, traditions, schools of thought, theories, pacings, and structures, that, once you get past the puppy love period where you want to do everything right now, you understand how holding back is just as important as holding forth. It’s not just a matter of making the right choices: it’s a matter of knowing when to stop, when to step back. Of knowing when, essentially, it’s right.

And, if you’re dedicated enough to be honest with yourself, doing an art–any art–really well is so terribly, terribly difficult that you’d lock up if you thought about it directly. Someone once asked Walter Cronkite if he ever thought about the millions watching his newscasts, and he said no, he thought of it as speaking one-to-one with a single person because, if he really thought about all the people out there, he’d be too terrified to do his job.

I don’t know how much aptitude I have with the guitar. I feel like I’m learning, and once in awhile, I make sounds that please me, and that’s all I’m really in it for. That and developing sufficient skills to play a song or two with friends. It’s refreshing to do an art that’s not a profession. But playing the guitar is devilishly hard to get right, and the more I seem to grasp, the more complicated it becomes. The relationship between difficulty and reward reminds me of an evening at a fiction writing workshop nearly 30 years ago when I’d presented a short story, which, frankly, was terrible–an utter cliche from beginning to end (and not even an interesting cliche). Out came the knives, and, when it was over, my self-esteem had been thoroughly diced. The woman running the workshop said, hey, how about we take a break, and everyone trooped off into the kitchen while I sat immobile, staring at the carpet. A minute or so later, the workshop leader came back and handed me a glass of wine.

“Christ,” I said. “Does it ever get any easier?”

She gently patted me on the shoulder and said, “You better hope not.”


That Obscure Object of Desire

First off, I survived “Commission! Commission!” relatively intact. The JAW people are extraordinarily kind to their authors, and we were squired about with gentle care. The whole experience, if a little edgy, was actually pretty fun, and my commissioner gave me a good solid theme to run with. My playwrangler, of course, got a run for her money, but handled my nonsense with aplomb. To wit, seconds before I was to be introduced to my commissioner, I turned to her and deadpanned, “Is this a good time to begin demanding coke?” To which she replied, in equal deadpan, “Which flavor?”

For a write-up on JAW, see: JAW festival gives theater world new plays to chew on

The rest of the summer…will largely be devoted to enjoying the stunning Oregon summer weather (the last phrase dooming us to a month of overcast), weeding and watering the garden as waves of bloom flow through it, working on at least two new plays, one under way and going well, and the other one bumping around inside my skull but feeling promising…and learning to play the red object above right, which has such a weird, seductive pull, that I want to be home with it right now. I taught myself a 12-bar blues this weekend, which, having loved guitar (and blues) from afar lo these many years, I found immensely satisfying. I have no desire to play for anyone but myself, but I’m happy to report that my left wrist aches like a bastard and it’s hard to type with the blisters on me fingers.

Good times.