Category Archives: music

Memory Boys

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Hey! I got U2’s new album! “Songs of Innocence.” It’s pretty good, kind of looking back, but not in an especially nostalgic way. More in terms of sound–kind of delving into their late 80s/early 90s voice. A little preachier than some–kind of reaching back to “The Joshua Tree” symbolism. (Yeah, I got it that it’s secular and spiritual. Thanks.) I grew up with these guys–we’re about the same age; so it’s good to check in with them, see where they are, where they’re going….

Wait. What? Uh…I have the album on my phone, but I didn’t, uh, buy it. Apparently, U2 worked some kind of master marketing deal with Apple, and the new album downloads automatically if you have an iPhone. Nice if you like U2, but still kind of…unsettling. We’re the world’s biggest band, and don’t you forget it.” Hmm. Either that or: “God, we got to get kids listening to our stuff…they think we’re their parents’ band.” Which, you know, they are.

That said, some great work from The Edge, guitar techno-wizard, some of which will have guitarists digging out their Vox amps and Memory Boy delay units, chasing those 1/16th palm-muted echoes. And some of those monstrous distorted riffs that showed up on “Achtung Baby” and “Vertigo.” “Raised by Wolves” and “Cedarwood Road” kick ass…a term not always associated with U2.  Nice that they decided to record hot–it’s an album that begs you to turn it up. Their last album “No Line on the Horizon” almost sounded like it was recorded in a whisper–like they were either depressed or suffering from migraines. On the other hand, Bono is very high in the mix. God bless him, but isn’t Bono high in every mix?

Kind of the perfect difference between U2 and Radiohead. The latter offered a stunning album–“In Rainbows”–as a pay-what-you-will download and did great, both with fans and critics. U2 says: hey, it’s free…whether you want it or not. Which probably reflects that, when you buy a Radiohead album, you never know what you’re going to get (though odds on it’ll be good…or at least provocative). When you buy U2, you pretty much know what you’re going to get and you listen for the variations (which, honestly, mostly come from The Edge).

The part that amuses me? That somewhere out there, Mick Jagger’s sitting alone in a darkened room, pouring glass after glass of Jack Daniels…utterly bereft that he never thought of this.

So much for innocence.


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.


Les Paul Lives


The headlines yesterday, of course, read that Les Paul passed away at 94–which is about 180 in musician years, so he had a good run. And what a lot of good he did. But even though the man has exited the stage, his ideas, in the form of some of the most beautiful guitars ever made, will live on and on and on, in guitar cases and on countless MP3s, CDs, vinyl LPs, singles, and live performances. (Not to mention minor contributions such as multi-track recording.) So Les Paul lives. More or less forever. (And that’s coming from a Fender guy.)

Les Paul Dies


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.”