True Bypass vs. Buffered Bypass - What You Really Need to Know

There's a lot of confusion and misinformation out there about true bypass vs buffered pedals. I'm going to try to clear that up, but without getting too deep into the technical bits. I'll structure this as a Q&A session.

What is true bypass?
True bypass is a design for turning off an effect pedal where the effect circuitry is completely taken out of the signal path of the guitar, so when bypassed it is effectively just a wire running from the input to the output of the effect.

What is buffered bypass?
Buffered bypass is a design in which the guitar signal still goes through a "buffer" circuit when the effect is bypassed. A standard passive guitar pickup has a high-impedance, low-strength output. (This is as technical as I'm going to get.) The buffer effectively "strengthens" the signal by converting it to low-impedance.

Is true bypass better than buffered bypass?
It's not a simple A>B situation. In some situations true bypass is better, in others it's worse. I'll try to explain those scenarios in the answers to other questions.

What are the advantages of true bypass?
True bypass has no appreciable effect on your tone, while a buffer circuit will impart some coloration on your tone even when the effect is bypassed. Although the amount of coloration may be very small.

So true-bypass is better then?
No. True-bypass does not erode your tone, but it also does nothing to combat your cables eroding your tone, which is exactly what buffers are designed to do. First, you have to understand that cables have a pretty significant effect on your tone when the cable lengths are long (say, 15 feet or more). Over long cable runs, a passive guitar output signal will lose high-end and get kind of fuzzy/loose sounding on the low-end. The same thing happens if the signal is split, like to a tuner or a second amp. Finally, the high impedance signal of a passive guitar output is susceptible to electrical interference. Buffering the guitar signal will enable it to run over very long cables (or split to multiple destinations) without tone suckage from the cable itself, and make the signal less prone to interference.

So buffered bypass is better then?
No. Not always anyway. The buffer circuit will leave its own imprint on your guitar tone. Basically, any circuitry adds some amount of coloration on the signal. With buffers, the coloration is usually negligible although those with really sensitive ears can probably discern it. However, if you run a lot of pedals with buffered bypass, then you get the cumulative tone coloration of all those pedals on your sound, and with enough pedals even players without sensitive ears can hear it.

So what is best then?
For short cable runs, using all true bypass pedals is fine, maybe even preferably. When I say "cable run" I mean all the cabling between your guitar and amp, including patch cables. For long cable runs, you want some buffering.

How much is "some buffering"?
Ideally, you'd have one buffer at the beginning of your pedalboard (perhaps the first pedal has a buffered bypass, or maybe the first pedal is a dedicated buffer box), then all the other pedals would be true bypass. That way, you're getting a strong low impedance signal to drive your signal chain without tone loss, but you're not suffering the cumulative tone coloration of multiple buffers.

OK, so one buffer at the front, and the rest true-bypass?
That's ideal for a small number of pedals (say, 5 or fewer). If you have a lot of effects pedals, it's a good idea to have a buffer at the end of your pedalboard as well, effectively book-ending your effects with buffers. That final buffer will make up for any cumulative tone loss through the pedals. Once again, you could accomplish this by using a pedal with buffered bypass, or a dedicated buffer, at the end of your pedalboard.

Crap, some of my "in between" pedals are buffered. What should I do?
Don't sweat it. Front-ending or book-ending with buffers is ideal, but it's not a hard requirement. Unless you have bat ears, an extra buffer or two in the signal path is not going to appreciably hurt your tone.

Easy enough, anything else I should know?
Yes, one more thing. Germanium fuzzes don't like buffers! If you have one of those, put it at the beginning of your pedalboard before the buffer.

Where can I get a standalone buffer pedal?
First, be aware that any pedal with buffered bypass will act as a buffer by simply putting it in your signal chain and leaving it off. Also most effects (even true-bypass effects) have a low impedance output when they're turned on. So any effect that you leave on all the time is effectively acting as a buffer. So it's likely you don't actually need a standalone buffer. I don't have a standalone buffer. I have a compressor pedal second in my signal chain and a reverb last. The compressor has buffered bypass and the reverb stays on all the time, so voilà, bookended buffers! But let's say you do actually need a standalone buffer. Oddly, they're kind of a specialty item made primarily by boutique builders. The ones I've found are made by Analogman, Empress, JHS, MXR/CAE, ScreaminFX, and Suhr. But don't treat this list as exhaustive; I'm sure there are many others.


My Current Pedalboard

While I'm on a roll with pedals, I'll go ahead and give a rundown of my current pedalboard. I tend to be in a perpetual state of flux with pedals, but this setup has been fairly stable. I have three basic sounds that I need: a clean tone, a crunchy overdrive sound, and a singing lead sound. How I go about getting those sounds depends on how much I can turn up my amp, but my pedalboard is outfitted so I can get them with a clean amp at low volume or a cranked-up amp. Once I have those three sounds, I get variations on them by engaging other pedals - wah, delay, or modulation. I add a bit of reverb to everything. This allows me to cover just about any guitar sound I am likely to want reasonably well.

These are the pedals I use, in order from the guitar to the amp:

Vox V847 - This is Vox's standard wah pedal. I like the Vox wah better than normal Crybabies, but I haven't compared it to any of the boutique or signature model wahs you can get. I've done mods to my wah. First, I modified it for true bypass because without it, wah pedals are notorious tone suckers when bypassed. Second, I adjusted the sweep of the wah so that it's voiced more the way I like it, which is smooth and vocal-like, instead of trebly and Shaft-sounding. That's actually a really simple mod: Inside, the treadle engages with a potentiometer using a plastic gearing mechanism. You can disengage the gear, and adjust the pot so that the pedal sweep works over a different range of the pot rotation, which changes the sound of the pedal. I just adjusted mine until it sounded the way I wanted, then carefully reengaged the gearing.

Maxon CP101 - The CP101 is an optical compressor. What I like about it is that it's subtle (as opposed to a heavy-handed Dyna Comp squash) and it's exceptionally quiet, adding very little additional noise. I also like that it has buffered bypass which is necessary to drive my low-impedance volume pedal and helps prevent tone loss with long cables. What I don't like about the CP101 is that it's prone to distort with high output pickups.

Boss FV-500L - The FV-500L is a really nice volume pedal. It's remarkably full-featured for a volume pedal and it's extremely rugged. I got the low impedance version so that I could also use it with keyboards, but the advantage of a low impedance volume pedal with a guitar rig is that it doesn't attenuate high-end as you turn it down like a high-impedance pedal would. However, it does require that you feed it a low impedance signal so some kind of buffer is necessary upstream of the pedal (I use the CP101 for that). Another nice feature of this pedal is that it has a separate tuner output which doesn't suck tone from the main signal path (so long as you do feed it a low impedance signal) and isn't affected by the volume setting so you can roll back the pedal and get silent tuning.

Boss TU-12 - The TU-12 used to be something of an industry standard for guitar tuners, but I think it's pretty outdated with polystring and portable strobo tuners now available. I'd love to upgrade, but my TU-12 still works fine so that has very low budget priority. 

Fulltone OCD - This is my go-to overdrive pedal. I wrote all about it in my last post so I won't say anything more here. I generally use this pedal when I can't turn up my amp enough to get a good crunchy rhythm tone.

Source Audio Orbital Modulator - The Orbital provides all my modulation sounds - chorus, flanger, phaser, univibe, and tremolo. Modulation is one of those things that you don't necessarily use a lot, but when you're trying to do a cover song that used it, it can be critical for authenticity (for instance, imagine covering Unchained without a flanger, or Message In a Bottle without chorus/flanger). So it's nice to have all the various mod sounds in one box instead of squandering pedalboard real estate with a bunch of individual pedals that don't get used much. The Orbital sounds utterly fantastic and is incredibly deep in terms of control - as good as or better than any other pedal of its type. Except in a more compact form factor, and costing considerably less money. What's not to like? Well, one thing: I wish it had more programmable memory (without having to buy add-ons).

Digitech Digidelay - The Digitech is your basic, workhorse delay pedal. It's inexpensive and sounds great. I normally use the tape delay mode and set it for about 350ms with 3 repeats and very low in the mix. The way I dial it in, it's more ambiance than discernible echo. I usually turn it on for solos or for more ethereal sounds (often in combination with the Orbital).

Voodoo Lab Giggity - The Giggity is a combination booster, EQ, and mild overdrive pedal. I use it primarily in conjunction with the OCD or my amp overdrive for my lead soloing tone and I've never been happier with that part of my sound. It provides boosted output, a warmer tone, and a bit more gain. The Giggity is capable of way more than that though and is really an incredibly useful pedal to have. One day I'll do a full review of it.

Digitech Polara - The Polara is a reverb pedal. It uses the Lexicon reverb algorithms and sounds terrific. It has an awesome paint job, which is cool to look at but unfortunately makes the labels hard to read! I use the Plate algorithm, dial it for a very subtle bit of ambiance, turn it on, and then forget about it. I don't like a lot of reverb. In fact, I don't want to consciously notice that it's there - I should only notice it if it's gone. But just a touch of reverb provides nice depth and polish, especially on clean tones. One nice feature of the Polara is its "Tails" switch, which selects between true bypass and buffered bypass. I use it in buffered bypass mode (i.e. tails on) to provide a final buffered output to the amp even on the rare occasions when I have the pedal bypassed. With the CP101 on the front end, and the Polara on the back, I'm essentially book-ending my pedalboard with buffers, which is recommended when you have long cables and a fair number of pedals. 

Voodoo Lab Power Power 2 Plus - I use the PP2+ to power everything. I wrote about it in a previous post. It's a power supply - there's not much else to say other than it just works.

Gator Cases Gig Box - All my pedals are velcro-mounted in the Gig Box, which I just love. The Gig Box comes with a hardshell case that provides storage room under the pedalboard for straps, batteries, cables, strings, picks, tools, and other stuff. The lid of the case detaches and converts to a guitar stand that holds 4 guitars! So the whole package is very space-efficient and convenient. Highly recommended. By the way, I have the older model Gig Box rather than the one in the link. They're very similar except the new model has a more heavy-duty case, but holds less in its storage area and guitar stand. Still a terrific product.


To All The Dirt Pedals I've Loved Before

No, this is not mine. The sickness hasn't
progressed to that point. Yet.
I have a friend who's a wicked guitar player who likes to say, "You can never own too many distortion pedals." There's some truth to that! Distortion is often the primary color of your tone and having a lot of colors available is handy. Dirt pedals are also a lot cheaper than amps so it's possible to buy and trade them without breaking the bank. Lower-gain pedals are very useful for The Nudge. As a result, I have bought, sold, traded, and retained quite a few distortion/overdrive pedals over the years. I decided to write down my impressions of all the ones I can remember. As you'll see, I'm more into "overdrive" pedals than distortion or fuzz pedals. My holy grail for dirt pedals is the one that sounds like an old cranked-up tube amp, or one that can push said amp into a warm singing lead tone.
  • MXR Distortion+ –  I bought a Distortion+ very early in my playing life, probably 1980 or so. At that time at my local music store, your only choices were the Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff and the MXR Distortion+. The Muff was cheaper and looked it. It was also loose and fuzzy sounding. So in my mind as a 15 year old, the D+ was the pedal to have! At the time, I really liked it. The sound was a lot tighter, less bassy, and more cohesive than the Muff, and it sounded good with chords. And, hey, Randy Rhoads used one! Based on the videos I've watched I'm not sure I would care for the D+ much nowadays, but it was the shiznit back then. Unfortunately I no longer have my Distortion+. I sold it to a friend several years after I got into Tube Screamers.
  • Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer – I bought an original TS-9 Tube Screamer in 1983 or '84. I used the TS-9 in combination with a Boss CS-2 compressor. I would keep the CS-2 on all the time but dialed for fairly moderate compression. The output of the CS-2 would run into the TS-9, on which I would dime the drive knob and set the level knob to just above unity gain. That combination sounded terrific and some variation of it was the core of my sound for the rest of the '80s. Unlike with the D+, hindsight hasn't changed my mind about the TS-9 – I still think highly of that pedal. It had less gain than the D+, but it was smoother, tighter, and more amp-like. Of course it had that characteristic midrange boost and attenuated low-end that defines the Tube Screamer sound. All-in-all one of the most satisfying overdrive pedals I've owned. Unfortunately sometime in the late '80s, the footswitch on mine went out. I didn't know of any place that could fix it, so I bought a a cheap switch from Radio Shack along with a cheap plastic chassis box, which I needed because the new switch was incompatible with the original TS-9 box. Then I installed the Tube Screamer guts into the plastic box along with the new switch. I limped along with that for about a year until that switch gave out too. At that point I threw the TS-8 in the garbage(!) and went to the music store to buy a replacement. Of course, nobody had any clue back then that ten years later vintage Tube Screamers would be selling for $300 or more, and I kick myself when I think about it.
  • Ibanez STL Super Tube – Unfortunately, Tube Screamers were no longer made at the time I needed to replace mine. So the music store sold me the Super Tube pedal as the nearest equivalent. The Super Tube was only manufactured in 1985 (and I I bought mine in about '87 or '88, so it had to be NOS). It was housed in a plastic box with cheap jacks and pots. Construction-wise it was a pretty crummy pedal, although mine worked fine for at least 10 years. Tone-wise, it was similar to the Tube Screamer, but a little smaller-sounding, less ballsy. I distinctly remember not liking it as much. It had two tone knobs labeled "bright" and "bite". The bright knob worked like a regular tone knob, and the bite knob was an upper-mid knob. I played with the Super Tube (and the CS-2) until about 1990 when I abandoned overdrive pedals altogether and started playing through rack systems. I sold the pedal to some collector in the '90s. Being a vintage pedal that was a direct descendant of the Tube Screamer, they were going for they were going for pretty decent money. I've read folks on the Internet praising the Super Tube, even preferring it over the Tube Screamer. But that's not what my ears heard.
  • Fulltone Full-Drive II – Around 1997, I started simplifying my rig and going back to amps and pedals. My reentry into overdrive pedals was with the FDII. My FDII is a relatively early model before Fulltone had introduced the flat-mids and MOSFET features that are on the current Full-Drive. Mine is also hand-wired (current Full-Drives have PCBs). Anyway, I felt right at home on the FDII. It is very similar to a Tube Screamer, but even smoother. It has a wonderful, footswitchable boost feature which gives you a small increase in volume and saturation, the latter of which is adjustable. I played a lot of gigs with the FDII and I still own and use the pedal fairly regularly. It also makes a good clean boost pedal if you're okay with that Tube Screamer-esque midrange hump. For overdrive duties though, my preference has evolved to pedals that are a bit less smooth and little more raw-sounding.
  • Marshall GV-2 Guv'nor Plus – I bought this pedal in the early 2000s. I wanted to have a pedal with a bit more gain on tap than the FDII, but wasn't an all-out metal machine. The Guv'nor+ does that. Overall, it's pretty good pedal for rock, although I find it a little bit compressed and congested for my tastes. It's one of those pedals that doesn't sound bad, but isn't particularly inspiring either. One thing it has that I do like is a very flexible EQ with controls for Treble, Mid, Bass, and Deep, which is sub-bass. I still have this pedal but it doesn't get used very often.
  • Voodoo Lab Superfuzz – I've only owned two fuzz pedals! The Superfuzz is modeled on the Jordan Boss Tone, rather than the Arbiter Fuzz Face like most other fuzz pedals. I think that's what appealed to me, on paper anyway, about this pedal. It's cool to go a different direction than the crowd. But as is often the case, people love the Fuzz Face and the Boss Tone is comparatively obscure for good reasons. The Superfuzz is hard in the upper-mids and kind of harsh-sounding, as opposed to fat and corpulent like a Fuzz Face. I never really bonded with this pedal and sold it a few years later. I realize now that I'd probably like a Fuzz Face clone more, but even then, I'm not a fuzz guy. I love what I hear other people doing with fuzz, but whenever I plug into one it's never quite the same.
  • Prescription Electronics Experience – The Experience was the other fuzz pedal that I've owned. As fuzz pedals go, I gotta say the Experience was really cool. It was fat and nasty. And it nailed that octave fuzz sound on Purple Haze (which Hendrix did with an Octavia pedal). It also had this interesting, but highly temperamental, control called "swell", which if you set it just right, and played around the 12th fret, using the neck pickup, gave you a backwards-sounding guitar! Very '60s psychedelic. I have a recording I did using that sound, which impressed one of my friends because I was able to control that function well enough to actually record it – it was that touchy. I don't think they make Experience pedals anymore and the they're pretty desirable now on the used market. As cool as it was though, I ended up selling that pedal (for more than I paid for it) since as I said, fuzz just isn't my thing.
  • Boss SD-1 Super Over-Drive – The SD-1 was a complete impulse buy, which can happen when pedals only cost $50. If I were stuck on a desert island, I wouldn't necessarily pick the SD-1 myself, but I wouldn't be crushed if it were picked for me. It's similar to a Tube Screamer with about the same gain range, but it's not as midrangey, and the overdrive character is a little more aggressive-sounding. To my ears, it's more amp-like. The downsides are that it's a little bass deficient, and it doesn't clean up as well when you pick lighter or roll back the guitar's volume. But other than that, it's a very good-sounding overdrive and a no-brainer at $50. I still own my SD-1 and it gets used a fair amount, especially with my Marshall as the two really like each other.
  • Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive – The Sparkle Drive is supposed to be a Tube Screamer-like overdrive, but to my ears the overdrive is actually a little anemic, especially when you turn up the gain to get more grind out of it. It's just not very ballsy sounding, even more so than the Super Tube. But the Sparkle Drive has one neat trick that keeps it in my collection. It has a "clean" control that mixes back in the unaffected signal with the distorted one. So you get a layering of clean and dirty tones, which is really quite nice. I find it very useful for lower-gain, open chord arpeggios, or blues tones. Mixed with the clean sound, the tepid sounding overdrive isn't objectionable. The clean control can also be maxed out, turning the pedal into a pure clean boost which is handy. But mixing in a little bit of dirt works really well for boost too and is one of my favorite ways to do The Nudge. I've always thought that if Voodoo Lab improved the overdrive side and made it bolder and more open and aggressive sounding (I'm talking more about the overall tone here, not necessarily the amount of gain), they'd have a devastating pedal. Based on what I've heard in YouTube demos, the updated Sparkle Drive MOD might be that pedal, so one day I'll probably upgrade. But for now, the original Sparkle Drive is still in my collection and gets used for boost or when I need its special trick.
  • Electro-Harmonix English Muff'n – This pedal uses actual 12AY7 tubes to do its business and purports to be a Marshall-in-a-box. It does that trick pretty well actually, but you have to know the secret. The EQ on the Muff'n is capable of extremes that will produce pretty terrible sounds. If you try to dial in a scooped-mid tone on this pedal, you'll hate it. The secret for getting vintage Marshall-esque tones out of the English Muff'n is to crank the mids (2:00 or higher) and turn down the highs (well below noon). The mid knob is really voiced in the high-mids, and the high is voiced at a frequency higher than you'd expect and adds a lot of buzziness to the overdrive. So cranking the mids and dialing back the highs will result in a bright-but-not-buzzy tone that is passably old school Marshall. The English Muff'n is also wonderfully touch-sensitive. In fact, it cleans up with light picking better than any overdrive pedal I've tried. The biggest downsides to the Muff'n have nothing to do with tone: it takes up a lot of real estate on a pedalboard, and it won't run on batteries and uses an oddball power adapter. I still have this pedal because I think it works really well, but I don't gig with it much due to the those two issues.
  • Fulltone OCD  – All things considered, this is the pedal I'd choose as my desert island pedal. You have to turn up your amp volume a bit to really bring out the best in the OCD, but when you do it's a thumpin' good pedal. It has more gain on tap than a Tube Screamer. There's no midrange hump and it retains a fair amount of low-end. The character of the distortion is tight, cohesive, and decidedly Brit-sounding. It has excellent touch-responsiveness (although not as good as the English Muff'n). And it works well with a wide variety of amps. By the way, I have version 3 of the OCD, which is "the one to get" according to my knowledgeable friends. But I've never personally compared the various OCD versions (this guy did, however). In any case, the OCD is my current favorite overdrive pedal and the one that I use the most.
  • Barber Electronics Small Fry – The Small Fry is also really nice. It has a lot of controls (both external and internal) that give it a tremendous amount of flexibility. It has a similar gain range to the OCD, but it has a fat, smooth, and singing voice, with a little more midrange (not overemphasized like a Tube Screamer though). Plugging in to this pedal makes me want to play lead, as opposed to the OCD which makes me want to play chords. It has a unique and very useful knob labeled "dynamics" that adjusts its touch sensitivity and gain range. It can do a passable, but not exact, Dumble impression. (If you need that, you want the Hermida Zendrive.) It's a bit noisy and for some reason at higher gain settings it can send my rig into squealing feedback more easily than other pedals. But for lead tones, I like it best of all the pedals I own.


The Nudge

Not to be confused with The Nuge, who is an imbecile.

When it comes to guitar tone I haven't tried every piece of gear in the world, but I have tried just about every approach. Guitar straight into the amp; pedals into clean amps; switching between multiple amps; amps with multiple channels; MIDI-controlled rack systems; digital modeling - whatever it is, I've used it at some point in my playing life. They all have advantages and disadvantages, and you have to choose the one that makes the most sense for your playing.

My favorite approach for several years is decidedly old school: Take a good, simple tube amp (preferably without a master volume) and just crank it up until it gets a nice, crunchy overdrive sound. Which for me, is somewhere between Keith Richards and Malcolm Young in terms of general tonality and overdrive level. Probably a bit more on the Malcolm side of things. That means somewhere between 10:00 and 2:00 on the volume, which is loud. But that's where the magic happens with tubes. If I'm not turning up to at least 10:00, then honestly I just could just as easily do with a solid state amp because tubes don't give up the glory until pushed.

A big part of my preference for this approach comes from the guitar sounds that inspired me as a kid. All that '60s and '70s rock - the Beatles, the Who, Hendrix, Clapton, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Mountain, the Allman Brothers, AC/DC, Tom Petty, Queen, Van Halen - all that music was made by setting tube amps to stun. Distortion pedals, master volumes, digital modeling - they're all useful (maybe even required) for certain situations, but in the end, they're all imitations of cranked tube amp tone. And in my opinion, there's still nothing like the real deal.

There's an incredble visceral feeling playing a cranked amp teetering on the edge of chaos. Picking lightly gives you a clean but simmering sound, and laying into it makes it scream. Best of all you can get any variation in between those two by altering your picking attack. That tactile response gives you wonderful real-time control over your sound and you can exploit that not only for different sections of a song, but also within individual phrases. That control causes me to pay a lot more attention to playing dynamics and that in turn makes my playing more expressive. You can also roll back the volume a little on the guitar to clean up the sound. Or you can activate a booster pedal (typically an overdrive pedal set up with minimal drive and an output level somewhere above unity gain) to get more sustain, volume, and saturation when you need it, like for a wailing solo. Putting an overdrive (one that's actually set up with some gain) or a fuzz pedal in front can send it over the top in a good way. In fact, I very much like the sound of stacked distortion devices so that's another advantage.

I call this approach "The Nudge" because really what you're doing is optimizing around one good sound, and then nudging the amp a bit in different directions to get variations on that sound. All the variations sound great because they're based on a great fundamental tone. And they're instantly accessible and continuously variable - no channel switching required (although you can make a valid argument that hitting a boost pedal is the equivalent).

The downside of this is volume. Even a 15 watt amp is quite loud when turned up. And it's even worse in today's world because there's a lot less tolerance for high volume at gigging venues then there used to be. And as a guitarist you have to deal with it. If you blast overly loud at a gig, I can promise you that you won't be playing at that venue much anymore (unless you're really drawing a huge audience, but that's another post for another day).

I use a variety of things to deal with the volume issue. My go-to amp has a half power switch that cuts the power down from 30 to 15 watts, so first I'll engage that. If that's not enough - and it usually isn't - I'll use an attenuator (in my case a Trainwreck/Kendrick Air Brake). These things aren't perfect but I find that I can knock the volume down with an attenuator 3 to 12db without neutering the tone too badly. If that's not enough, my amp also has a defeatable master volume that I'll engage to get a few more db's of reduction, but that's my last resort. If I can't get it to a reasonable volume for the gig using those things, then I'll fall back to setting the amp up for a good clean tone and using pedals for my dirty sounds.


Gear Musings, Part II

I played a Friday happy hour gig with my band from work last week. It went okay. I'm pretty rusty at playing live so despite the decidedly low-key nature of the gig, my nerves still wind up a bit. I blew chunks on a couple solos, but most were okay and a couple were actually very good. I wasn't exactly in The Zone though and to be brutally honest I know that I over-relied on my stock licks. And that's fine. It's a good goal, but it's hard to be inspired every time.

This band practices at low volume and my usual approach to tone has been to set my amp up for a good clean sound, then use pedals for all the dirty sounds. That's a really compromised way to do it because for this band I rarely use clean tones, so I'm optimizing around the exception scenario. But after the previous gig I realized that we play loudly enough at gigs that I could use my preferred approach: Crank the amp to get the ideal crunch tone (somewhere between Keith Richards and Malcolm Young), then use my guitar volume and picking attack to get different variations of clean and overdrive, and hit a boost pedal when I need a little extra gain/volume for solos. So that's what I did. I used a little bit of my amp's master volume along with an Air Brake to tame the volume a bit, but it was honest-to-goodness cranked amp tone. It's always a treat to be able to play that way with a band!

Because I was playing a guitar with singlecoil pickups, it wasn't quite as gainy as I'd prefer for some of the songs. But all things considered, I like the way it worked out. My sound was nice and crunchy and organic. The lead tone was maybe a little bit boxy though. I think that's because I used my old blue Fulltone Full-Drive for my boost, which is a little bit nasally. I think I'll experiment with some of my other overdrive pedals to see if one of them might be a bit more transparent as a boost.

The Pedal Power that I mentioned in part I of this thread worked flawlessly. That's great because I didn't spend any time testing it out before the gig. I just threw together a small pedalboard consisting of a Vox wah, the Full-Drive, a Digitech DigiDelay, a Digitech Polara reverb, and the Pedal Power. I wired everything up, plugged in the Pedal Power to make sure everything was getting juice, then threw the pedalboard into my gig bag before hustling to Durham for the gig. I never soundchecked it so I was taking a risk, but I did have batteries in the pedals as backup in case the Pedal Power gave me any problems. As it happened, the Pedal Power worked just fine. No glitches and no noise. I could have left the DigiDelay at home since I never actually used it at the gig, but normally I like having a little bit of slapback for soloing.

After the gig, I'm now second-guessing my previous need for a smaller amp. I love my current amps except that they're all fairly bulky and heavy. I've been lusting after the new Vox AC10C1 because tone-wise it's similar to my Ceriatone but it's very small, lightweight, and low-powered so it's easy to carry and I can use the cranked amp method more often. But if this band gigs at volumes high enough to use the Ceriatone, then the need for an AC10 isn't quite as strong, although the size and weight of the AC10 would still be a tremendous advantage. Especially since I have to schlep my stuff down from the 3rd floor of the house!


Some Gear Musings

Went to practice last night and discovered that somehow I'd misplaced my pedalboard power supply. Not sure what I did with it. But without it, my pedalboard is basically a boat anchor. Had to just plug straight into the rehearsal studio's amp. It was a Fender Super Sonic 22, which I'd been wanting to try out anyway. The Super Sonic's clean channel is pretty much standard Fender, which is to say clear, punchy, and bell-like. One of the reverb tubes was microphonic (rehearsal studio amps are never well maintained) and the reverb fed back like crazy, so I can't speak to how that sounded. But I expect it was good sounding, as Fender reverbs usually are. The dirty channel on the Super Sonic is just flat-out odd. First it has two gain controls, one being kind of bright sounding and the other dark. In operation, it's kind of like bridging the inputs on an old 4-hole Marshall, which I'm very familiar with. By setting the relative balance between the gain controls you can emphasize saturation in either the highs or the lows, which adds some flexibility. But in order to get a good sound to my ears, the tone controls have to be set to positions I normally wouldn't use with other amps. I had to really crank the mids to get a a nice sound out of it. It is also excessively bright and thin at very low volume (no matter where I set the EQ controls). I don't think it would be usable for me at really low volume. But cranked up even a little (say, about 3 on the master volume) and it fills out on the bottom end. Because of all the midrange you have to add, the Super Sonic 22 doesn't work well for scooped mids sounds, but that's fine by me because I don't care for that sound anyway. That gain channel is also a little boxy and compressed sounding in my opinion. I could live with the amp, but for the $1200 they ask for them new, I think there are more inspiring choices.

So the studio amp got me through practice but I still needed a power supply. Today at lunch I went to the local bigbox music store and sprang for a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus. The Pedal Power is almost an industry standard. They've been around for a long time and lots of pros use them because they just work without much drama. My old power supply was a Godlyke Power-All, which worked fine with most 9V pedals but produced a strange electrical interference noise with certain modulation pedals, including the chorus side of my Visual Sound H2O pedal. I'd always wanted to replace the Power-All with a Pedal Power due to this issue, but Pedal Powers are comparatively pricey and it never seemed that urgent while my Power-All was working okay. But I decided to pay the ransom now that I needed a new one anyway. The Pedal Power has fully isolated outputs so all the pedals are electrically isolated from one another so there is no funky noise problem. It also has a lot of options to work with pedals that have oddball power requirements. If it lasts (and it seems to be built like a tank), this should be the last one of these things I'll need. Fingers crossed...


Elliot Easton and Perfect Phrasing

I first got into The Cars back in high school. I adore their first three albums in particular. They had a very distinctive sound - perfect little pop songs with clicky-sounding guitars, quirky vocals, and ironic lyrics. I also liked how they incorporated the synth in those early records - it provided simple, single-line counter melodies with odd timbres, instead of the thick, lush, space-consuming pads that Greg Hawkes evolved to in the late '90s when polyphonic synthesizers became commonplace.

But the sleeper in The Cars' garage in my opinion was Elliott Easton. He gave the simple pop songs musical substance. That guy was just incredible. Even the metalheads respected Easton because he could flat-out wail. But he didn't just wail; he was the quintessential play-for-the-song guy. His solos are like perfecty crafted little songs-within-songs, with an intro, a build-up, a climax, and a landing (sounds sexual!) - all in a few seconds. He had a wide-ranging vocabulary and worked in blues bends and vibrato, country and R&B style double stops, hammer-ons/pull-offs, and a million other tricks, but he never sounded like he was just showing off. Everything he played was melodic and genuinely complimented the song. The structures, melodies, and the note selections suggest that he worked out his solos ahead of time, but the way he played them seemed improvised and off the cuff. His phrasing was just immaculate! A thing of beauty and wonder.

I figured I'd share a couple of my favorites as examples of his wonderful soloing.

Just What I Needed (skip to 1:46 for the solo) - A great example of his playing in my opinion. It's mostly major pentatonic, but he works in a couple of notes here and there to fit better with the underlying chords and sound more hip. He also sticks the landing with a flourish using rockabilly-style major 6th doublestops. Not many New Wave guitarists would have thought to do that, nor had to stylistic vocabulary to pull it off.


Shake It Up (skip to 1:16 for the solo) - I like how he enters the solo with Chuck Berry doublestops, then goes into melodic blues licks. This solo shows why even the metalheads liked him - the dude had formidable chops!

Touch and Go (skip to 1:17 for the solo) - This is probably my favorite Elliot Easton solo because it's so melodic. He stretches out just a little longer than he usually does. I just love the playful phrasing, as well as the way he drags the beat a little toward the beginning. This solo is broadly structured like the solo in Just What I Needed - the build-up and the way he climbs the fretboard to end it. But he gets to navigate more chord changes, which he does really masterfully.


Bass Lake Trail

This is a pretty extreme example of where the camera couldn't capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. There are different approaches I could have used to expose this, but the one used was to set my exposure so that the sky was its actual color and brightness. This avoided blowing out the sky (except for the sun), at the expense of most everything else being in silhouette. All that foliage you see originally appeared pitch black in the unprocessed image. But I lifted the shadows in post and all the wonderful backlighting on the foliage was revealed, which is the way the scene looked in real life. The ability of a RAW file to retain all that information still amazes me even though I've seen it a million times. One fun element to this photo is the sunstar, which is the by-product of the small aperture (f/11) that I used.


Morning Moon

On Saturday I got up before dawn to get some photos. It had been way too long. If felt great to exercise those muscles again. I had Bass Lake all to myself, except for one ambitious fisherman.


Mopac & the Blue Suburbans

Mopac & the Blue Suburbans are a blues band out of Austin, TX. They may still be together, I don't know. The band kind of comes and goes, depending on the whims of their principal players. Mopac has been through many lineups, but the common thread is that the musicians are usually weekend warriors who make their livings in the high-tech industry. The main guy, Doug Miller, is a veteran marketing executive who has been with a lot of different companies in Austin and he also happens to be a killer harp player. I met Doug when we worked for a software company called Dazel and he invited me to join the band.

At the time, Mopac was a straight-up blues band and we played that format for a few years. But toward the end of that iteration of Mopac, we added a jump-blues song. For whatever reasons, that song just clicked with us. We played it really well and it was one of our more popular songs. When that version of Mopac disbanded not longer after, Doug and I formed a band called Fat Cat Jump, in which we decided to focus exclusively on jump-blues. This was at the beginning of the late '90s swing revival started by Brian Setzer and his cover of Jump, Jive, and Wail. It was really great timing for Fat Cat Jump because we loved those old jump songs; the market was really ripe for it with the swing revival; and we had a schtick in that we used a Chicago blues instrumentation (guitar, harp, bass, drums) instead of horns.

Doug and I hit the woodshed to really learn how to play jump. I spent hours and hours learning as many inversions of swing chords as I could, as well as chord substitutions, and lots of variations of 12-bar blues progressions (if you think there are only 3 chords in blues, you are truly only seeing the tip of the iceberg). I spent hours practicing progressions and changing up the chord inversions each time through so that I could fluidly call up any inversion I knew and have the rhythm guitar be a constantly evolving element to the song while still holding down the harmonic structure. I also woodshedded on jump soloing, which I approached by mixing in Charlie Christian type of stuff with the blues licks that I was already familiar with, like T-Bone Walker, Albert King, and even a bit of Chuck Berry. I worked a lot on soloing over chord changes, adapting note selection to the underlying chords instead of force-fitting minor pentatonics over everything. As a by-product of all this, I got really good at playing over shuffles, which is something that I was not very comfortable with before. I learned a lot of new things, but I also gave up a lot of old things. I dropped most of the "theatrical" rock idioms that were pretty core to my playing before - like two-handed tapping, flashy speed licks, pinch harmonics, aggressive whammy bar work, playing in free time, etc. I also spent a fair amount of time and money trying to get as authentic a sound as possible, using old tubes amps and horsetrading gear. My tone went from pretty gained out, to being mostly clean with just a tiny bit of overdrive. I mostly used the neck pickup on my guitar and I bought a hollowbody Epiphone Sorrento with a Bigsby vibrato.

Doug and I recruited a stand-up acoustic bass player, and we went through a few different drummers. This band was pretty well-rehearsed and it showed. We were very tight. With the connections that we had to the high-tech industry, we played a lot of happy hours in downtown Austin. Probably the best gig we had was a standing weekly residency at a bar called The Spot, opening for Monte Montgomery.

After a few years Fat Cat Jump disbanded. But Doug and I didn't miss a beat. We brought in some of the old Mopac guys, revived the name Mopac & the Blue Suburbans, and just continued on with the same material. In fact, gig-wise we did even better than Fat Cat because we had more people in the band with connections which led to better opportunities. We ended up with a virtual residency at a club called Speakeasy that was the perfect venue for a jump/swing band. It had a lot of mahogany and red velvet and you entered through an alley - it looked like a speakeasy and we sounded like a band you'd see in a speakeasy. We were kind of made for each other. We also finagled our way into a few really choice gigs, like opening for Jimmie Vaughan. As I mentioned this was in late '90s.  Austin is a tech town, and that was the high point of the dotcom boom, so money was flowing, people were smoking cigars and drinking martinis, and we played swing and jump blues for young, beautiful, newly wealthy people.  We provided the soundtrack to their excess and while the whole dotcom thing makes me think, "What the hell were we smoking?" its was a blast being in the middle of it.  It was like being a minor character in The Great Gatsby.

Eventually though, I became dissatisfied with Mopac. One, I got burned out on jump-blues. It's tremendously fun music and it was challenging to learn, but it's obviously a very particular style and I was sort of missing the other aspects of my playing that had to be suppressed to play jump with any sort of authenticity. But the bigger factor was that we had plateaued as a band and it was a pretty low plateau. Mopac was never as serious about the music as Fat Cat Jump, and we were never as tight. With the exception Doug and I, the band wasn't really motivated to be a badass, take-no-prisoners musical unit. Some of the other players were perfectly happy just to wing their way through the songs. They didn't want to put in the effort to be really good, or more accurately they simply didn't see the need to. They were satisfied impressing their non-musical friends on Friday nights. Sometimes we sounded absolutely terrific. And sometimes we were a musical train wreck on stage, which I simply can't abide. We had lost a few more ambitious members over this issue during my tenure and after dealing with it for way longer than I should have, I finally quit myself. By the end, I was glad to be out of it. But with the years softening my memory of the bad parts, I look back fondly on the experience now. It was a good time and we had moments that were very rewarding.

I recorded these songs with Mopac and the Blue Suburbans. I'm not exactly sure of the date, but it must have been the late '90s or early '00s. Despite what I wrote about our tightness as a band, our playing on these songs is pretty damn good. Especially considering there's little to no overdubbing on them - they were recorded live to 16-track analog tape. We recorded at our then drummer's home studio. I think he did an outstanding job recording and mixing this.


I Got Loaded

I wrapped up a new recording last week. It's a version of the old Louisiana party tune, I Got Loaded, by Camille Bob who recorded the song originally in 1965 with Lil' Bob & the Lollipops. I got some great help on this one. Gary Lane recorded the vocals, and the final guitar solo over the fade-out was recorded by Mark Skelton. I think they both did an outstanding job and I remain privileged to work with such talented people. All the other instrumentation was performed by me.

A sad irony is that just a few days before I finished this song, Camille Bob died at age 76 in Opelousas, LA. I had no idea of this until I sat down to write this blog post and started Googling to find informational links for my post. I'm not an expert on the life and work of Camille Bob, but I've loved this song since I first heard it in the early '80s covered on Los Lobos' major label debut album. It's clear that Bob, like so many great Louisiana musicians, had a knack for writing fun, catchy tunes that make you feel good when you might otherwise be feeling down. He was also one of the first musicians to have integrated audiences in Louisiana, so there was substance to go along with the fun party tunes. The world needs more of that and his loss is our loss.

So I present my recording of I Got Loaded now as a tribute to Camille Bob for making the world a little better place.


Independence Day

I had a great 4th weekend. I got few chores done, but mostly it was just relaxing and hanging out with the family. Finished off the series finale of Six Feet Under, which I'd started watching on Amazon Fire TV a few months ago. It was a very good series ended by one of the most satisfying finales I've seen. I'd read that the finale was excellent, but in the couple episodes leading up to it I was wondering how they were going to pull that off. But boy they sure did! The use of music was particular excellent and effective. Now I'm going to have to find something else to do with my weekend mornings when everybody else is still asleep. Maybe I'll start watching The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, since I seem to be the only person in the world who hasn't seen those series...

On the 4th we had a small get-together with our neighbors. I've been learning how to smoke meats, so this was an opportunity to put that to use. It's an all-day job to smoke and one thing I've learned is that smoking a lot of meat is only slightly more work than smoking a little, so if I'm going to do it, I'm going to make a lot. This time I made two briskets and 4 racks of pork spare ribs. I have an electric smoker so it's not as labor-intensive as a charcoal or wood burning smoker. But you do have to keep it full of wood chips so you're tied to it for the day. The other thing with an electric smoker is you have to watch the weather! It started raining about halfway through my smoke and I had to quickly build a lean-to with a tarp to keep my electrical appliance from getting soaked. The briskets turned out really well – juicy, smoky, and flavorful.One thing missing from my brisket is a nice smoke ring, but taste-wise they're very good. Better than what I can get at most restaurants. This was my first time making ribs and they turned out really well, if I say so myself. The meat tasted great and was falling-off-the-bone tender. My wife thought the rub I used was a little too peppery. It's a valid opinion because the primary ingredient was in fact fresh-ground pepper. But I personally like a peppery flavor, so I'm fine with. But next time I'll adjust the recipe a bit or try a different one to see if I can find something that works for everyone. I found a recipe for Aaron Franklin's famous Espresso Barbecue Sauce online and made that as well. I love that sauce and the recipe was pretty close. But next time I'm going to personalize it a bit by decreasing the vinegar a little and maybe adding a bit of a sweet element to it (not a lot, just a little bit) and I think it'll be perfect. [Update: I found a slightly different take on the recipe that seems to be closer to what I'd like. Check it out – keep scrolling down past the end of the article...]

On Sunday we took the kids to see Inside Out. This was probably the least enthusiastic I've been about seeing a Pixar film, mainly because the commercials just weren't very compelling. And also because the story concept is almost identical to Herman's Head, which was a pretty mediocre show. But as it turns out, the movie is very good and the commercials don't do it justice. Pixar has a perfect touch for making movies that are sentimental without being sappy, throwing in healthy doses of humor for the adults, and for making movies that appeal to children without patronizing them. Inside Out continued that tradition in my opinion.

So today I return to the grind at work. Oh well.


The Show Goes On

My little work band just got called up at a corporate event to play a song. I'm telling you, playing somebody else's guitar, through somebody else's amp, with somebody else's sound, is such an awkward and uncomfortable experience. It's like wearing somebody else's underwear. In this case, it was assless underwear. But I tried to act like I owned the joint.