Damian saw us at a local gig recently and has emailed asking about my gear and how I arrive at my live sound. Well, Damian, I’ll be the first to admit that it's certainly not down to my ability - I ain't that good a player. It's all about the gadgets, but I’m none the less flattered by your request so, for what it's worth, I’ll give it a go.
My guitar sound has always been a work-in- progress (notwithstanding my 16-year rest!). Since the very early days, I preferred the ‘simplicity’ of a three piece line-up - Guitar, Bass and Drums so having a ‘full’ guitar sound is something I’ve always strived for. But back in the late sixties and early seventies a fat guitar sound wasn’t easy to achieve. Primitive ‘Fuzz Boxes’ were on the scene but amps with ‘Master Volume’ were unheard of. ‘Chorus’ pedals were a decade away and ‘Stereo’ hadn’t even been invented. The only options for a dirty, crunch sound were either TURN IT UP!!! or wind up a small amp like an AC30.
The invention of ‘Chorus’ in the early eighties immediately gave us 'rhythm-bashers’ a rich sound that could easily fill out a song and with the introduction of Roland’s GR 707 guitar synthesizer in the mid eighties I could layer some Brass or Strings sounds over the top.
When I retired from the entertainment scene in 1995 my main guitar sound came through a Boss Chorus, Boss Distortion and a Boss Analogue Delay pedal to a Marshall 100 watt 2 x 12 combo and a Maine 100 watt 2 x 12 combo. My active Aria pro guitar had the Roland GK2 pickup feeding a Roland GR50 guitar synth into a HH SD500, 2 x 250 watt stereo amp driving two 15” cabs with horns. All that for just ten minutes of playing at the end of our one hour comedy cabaret spot - but it was a good ten minutes!!
Fast forward sixteen years and things have changed somewhat. The Internet, ipods, ebay are all great tools for a returning musician looking for gear and wishing to start playing again. Information is everywhere. As soon as it became clear that The Grandads had musical potential beyond any of my former bands, I began refining my gear choices to rise to the challenge. So, here’s my current live setup.
GUITAR - Steinberger Synapse Transcale. I bought the cheaper, Hohner version of this guitar in early 2011 because it’s compact size and light weight were attractive features after my first hip replacement (my PRS West Street weights a ton!!). I kinda liked it so I thought I’d upgrade to the Transcale. There were none available on this side of the Atlantic so I imported it direct from the US. I think it’s still the only one in UK.
The Grandads set list ranges from Bob Marley to Thin Lizzie to Take That and Status Quo so it’s almost impossible for any one regular guitar to produce all the sounds I need. But the Transcale is up to the job because it has battery-powered active electronics on board (just like my old Aria Pro) and a Piezo bridge pickup. I can boost the treble and cut the bass for a classic Telecaster sound, dial in some of the Piezo to add an acoustic tone, or back off the top for a warm or rocking Gibson Humbucker feel. It also has a built-in, sliding capo and two additional frets at the nut end that transforms it into a Baritone guitar - a quirky feature I never thought I’d use but I actually do - in ‘Take That’s’ ‘Rule The World’.
I modified the electronics and fitted a Roland GK3, hexaphonic, synth pickup next to the bridge.
The GK3’s controller is mounted on an aluminium plate, Velcro’d to the back of the guitar. Two stainless steel rod extensions on the strap button screws allow it to stand on the floor, safely leaning against something.
GUITAR EFFECTS - TC Electronics, G System. Roland GR33.
Here's my player's-eye view of the floor around me.
Many of the Boss effects pedals I used back in the eighties are still on the market today but there now far better options available - albeit a tad more expensive. Researching guitar effects, the same parameters applied as for the guitar. I needed to maximise the range of sounds available with the minimum number of button presses, occupy a minimum acreage of floor space with the tidiest appearance and shortest setup time. The G System scores highly all round. In essence, it’s a stereo multi-effects system in which you can program hundreds of different combinations of effects and assign them to hundreds of memory locations that can be recalled by the front row of footswitch buttons on the floor unit. I bolted a Boss FV500H to the end casing and mounted the removable ‘Brain’ of the G System on a board that sits on top of my Mesa Boogie.
Also mounted on that board are my three ‘Distortion pedals - an MXR Distortion +, a Boss DX1 and a TC Nova Drive. All are looped into the G system and can be switched directly by pressing the loop buttons on the foot control board. But the Nova Drive has a few more tricks up it’s sleeve. It is Midi-controlled and programmable. This means that you can assign any of it’s dozens of programmed sounds to any ‘patch‘ in the G system’s memory. Just press the G System button for the sound patch you require and it will ‘talk’ to the Nova Drive and recall the exact settings that you programmed into it for that patch. Clever. Now, having all that stuff, pre-wired and sitting right on top of the amp means that there is just one wire to run from the G System floor unit to the amps behind me.
In honesty, because of my dodgy hips, I’m currently only using the most basic features of the G System (getting down to floor level and back up again hasn’t been the most painless of exercises recently) but I’m looking forward to fully exploring it’s potential when new bionic joints are fully in action. Watch this space.
Sitting to the left of the G System, cranked round at an angle is my Roland GR33 Guitar Synth. Although it’s quite old, for me, this is the best Roland have produced so far. You can program 256 ‘Patches’ which again, can be recalled with just a few button presses. Each ‘patch’ can contain just one or any combination of two PCM quality sounds. For instance, 12 string Acoustic guitar and Grand Piano or Hammond organ and Orchestral Strings or Harmonica and Brass section. You can adjust the volume balance and effects processing of the two sounds independently within the GR33 and control the overall output volume with the built-in foot pedal - situated right next to the FV500H, guitar volume pedal. There’s an additional pair of Boss footswitches mounted behind the main bank of four that allows me to switch quickly through the banks. Just one 13-core lead connects the Steinberger Guitar to the synth. The guitar signal is separated and sent off to the Mesa Boogie and the synth’s stereo output goes directly to the PA desk.
So, with a little tap dance, I can, for instance, begin a song with a 12 string Acoustic guitar sound in stereo through the PA, then blend in a stereo, Chorus’d electric guitar through my amps behind me. For the second verse I can add violins to the 12 string guitar and for the guitar solo I can call up a pre-programmed harmony note the follows every lead note I play on the guitar like the twin lead guitars of Thin Lizzie.
The pedal board in the middle, behind the other two switches between the three Mesa Boogie amp channels.
Mounted on the right of the Mesa pedal board is a TC Electronics ‘Doubler’. This provides a pretty effective ‘ADT’ (Automatic Double Tracking) to my Vocals and is switched on and off directly by the footswitches on the unit.
AMPLIFIERS - Meas Boogie MkV and Marshall 2 x 12 combo. The wide variety of guitar sounds required for “the Grandads’ choice of music and the need to switch quickly between them led me to Mesa Boogie’s new MkV amp. It has a huge range of tone and distortion control but the feature that interested me most is it’s ability to switch between three completely independent pre-amp channels with the supplied footswitch. So, I can have Channel 1 set to a completely clean sound canvas, allowing the G System to colour it however I want. Channel 2, I set to what’s known these days as “Crunch’ - a sort of overdrive, Quo rhythm sound. And Channel 3, a more distorted, Paul Kossoff, ‘Alright Now’ sound.
Now, it seems that most guitar amps these days have something called an ‘Insert Loop’. This is an input and output jack socket on the back that allows you to interrupt the signal chain between the pre-amp and power amp sections of your amplifier and insert your effects. This is where I connect the G System. The signal levels are matched with another little gadget in the circuit called an ‘Ebtech Line Level Shifter’. Connecting everything up this way minimises hum, hiss and unwanted distortion.
The Mesa Boogie’s 100 watt power amp deals with the right channel but to take full advantage of the G System’s stereo capabilities I required another amplifier for the left channel. Hmmm....what to use? It was a no-brainer. Up in my loft, gathering dust and waiting to be awoken from a long, well-earned rest was my old Marshall 4140 ‘Town & Country’, 2 x 12 combo - one of the few remnants of my previous musical life. Made in 1978, this amp was aimed at ‘Country’ players and was billed as the ‘cleanest’ valve amp Marshall ever made. Ideal!! - Exactly what I wanted. A 100 watt ‘clean’ amp that would do justice to the Mesa Boogie’s pre-amp right channel.
I built a single, Celestion-loaded, 12” speaker cab to sit under the Mesa so I would have, in effect two 100 watt 2x12 combos. All the amps and cabs sit on stands so that the centre of each 12” speaker is angled directly towards my head. This is so important in tight venues. I see so many guitarists playing with their amp on the floor a few feet behind them. High frequencies are very directional so they travel through their legs, straight to the audience. What the player hears is a high-cut version of the true sound. Bass players don’t have to worry too much about this problem.
The final refinement is a 2 x 12 stereo cabinet that sits on the top of John’s bass cab, on the other side of the stage. Each speaker inside is connected directly to one of the two 100 amps behind me to further spread the guitar sound and give John a carbon copy of what I’m hearing.
So, there it is Damien, everything you need to make an average guitarist sound like a slightly better one.
But it takes much more than just a few guitar gizmos to get the overall sound you hear from The Grandads. John’s rock-solid bass and Chris’ amazing live drum sound can take equal credit for the sound that, OK, I guess we’re pretty chuffed with too.
You can wake up now.
UPDATE 30TH AUGUST 2011
As I said at the start of this article, my live sound is and always has been a work in progress. So here's the latest incarnation.
The Marshall 2 x 12" combo works fine as one side of my stereo guitar amps but it's bloody heavy, a bit old, a bit fragile and possibly too valuable to take on the road (probably my Missus' description of me!! - not sure about the 'valuable' bit though.) Searching for a replacement I came across a Fender Frontman amp - 2 x 12, 100 watt combo for £180 new? OK, it's transistor but that doesn't matter. As with the Marshall, it's only amplifying one stereo half of the Mesa Boogie's processed signal. It's a relative lightweight but plenty loud enough for our pub gigs. And I can plonk it on it's side, on an angled stand to minimise the total width of my stage gear.
I'm using more guitar synth sounds with The Grandads than I ever have before and I've been struggling to integrate and balance them with the regular guitar sounds. Until recently, the synth sounds have been put through the PA in the hope that the orchestral ones will be clear in the mix and have good separation from the guitar sounds. Fine, if we have a full-time professional engineer out front on the PA desk, to mix both the main PA and my monitor mix. But it ain't happening. We're mixing our own PA sound from the stage at most gigs and it's almost impossible to judge an accurate synth level and tone through the PA.
So, I decided to try amplifying the synth side of my guitar in the back line through it's own amp and speaker. In the studio, we have a pair of Wharfdale Titan 15" 420 watt, powered PA cabs so I thought I'd try it through one of those bad boys on stage. I welded a couple of steel tube pieces to the back of the Fender amp stand where I can drop in a steel pole and plonk the Titan cab on top like a PA stand. I struggled with impedance and level matching for a couple of gigs but finally managed to sort it out at The Fox last Saturday. There's plenty of power from the Titan's bi-amped 15" speaker and big compression horn, it's delivering a full, bright sound of strings and horns with clear separation from the guitar sound and I can get a much better balance now with both my guitar sounds behind me.
29th October 2011
In the blog I mentioned that I'd fallen for a Gibson RD Artist that didn't get a single bid on Ebay. Well, I'm pleased to say that a deal was done and it has now joined my other toys on the wall. And here they are (except for the two Steinbergers which were in the van when the piccy was taken).
LEFT TO RIGHT
TANGLEWOOD TW145 12 String Acoustic / Electric.
Onboard pre-amp, tone and volume controls and tuner. I took off the standard 11's and put on a set of Ernie Ball 9's. It's now much easier to play and the loss of low-end can easily be boosted through the electrics.
GIBSON RD ARTIST 1978
One of only a few hundred that Gibson made between 1977 and 1981. A collaboration with Moog - yes, the synth folk, gave this model active electronics - treble and bass boost and cut, plus very effective onboard compression with amazing sustain.
PRS WEST STREET 'SANTANA'
One of a limited run of 200. Very simple - one volume, one tone and one pickup selector. Quite heavy with a fat neck but beautiful to hold and caress. I used this guitar on a few solos on our CD.
GIBSON J185 EC ACOUSTIC
Proper Gibson quality both in tone and manufacture. A nice big Jumbo acoustic sound with onboard pickup and active electronics.
GIBSON LES PAUL JUNIOR
This one is a budget recreation of the classic 1958's double-cutaway Junior with decals instead of the mother-of-pearl inlays but it's still a Gibson. The single coil pickups give it a unique, classic tone for the more rocky stuff.
ARIA PRO II RS ESPRIT 1984
This was my workhorse for the last eight years on the road until the early 1990's. It has a beautiful neck that's as good as any American guitar and active electronics with a great tonal range. It took a bit of a bashing and was knocked over regularly on stage but never broke and always stayed in tune. Whenever I pick it up and play a few chords I'm instantly reminded of those 'good old days'. These guitars seem amazingly scarce now.
MARTIN COLETTI LIGNATONE ACOUSTIC
I dunno how or when I got hold of this one but I've had it around forty years. It's been gathering dust in the loft all this time. I pulled it down the other day and decided to try to find our a little about it and maybe do it up. Apparently, it's a Cremona 457, plain instrument made in 60s in Luby, Czechoslovakia. They were exported to UK under Lignatone brand or sold by Dallas as Martin Coletti. . The neck had all-but separated from the body so I removed it completely and re-made the joint.
When I acquired it as a teenager it was just a second-hand 'cheap' guitar. Now, all of a sudden it's over fifty years old and there aren't many of 'em left so it's worth investing a little TLC in it. I'll let you know what it's like when I've finished the repairs.
Of the many guitars I have owned over the past 45 years there are three that still hold fond memories. You can see two of them in the 'HYDE' picture taken in Mote Park, Maidstone, in about 1971, in the Gallery.
I bought my very first electric guitar from a sixth former at school for sixteen pounds when I was probably about fourteen or fifteen. It was a black VOX with a bank of push button switches for 'Fuzz', 'Repeat', 'Treble Boost', 'Bass Boost', 'Wah-Wah' with a rotary control and something else that I can't remember plus the usual pick-up selector and volume and tone controls. The closest match I've yet seen is a 'VOX MARAUDER' which was a kinda distorted Telecaster shape like this one.
But I'm sure mine was a proper Tele shape although I can't find any pictures to confirm it. Maybe this is where my passion for 'active' guitars started.
1968 MAHOGANY GIBSON SG STANDARD
This is the one I'm playing in the 'Park' picture. I can remember it hanging on the wall in 'ESE Music' on Maidstone's Broadway. One of my workmates, 'Steve Laurie' (now with The Hollies) had a Red SG Special which sounded great!! Most SG's were either Cherry or Walnut so this Mahogany beauty was a bit unusual. I recall that it was £240 - a bloody fortune for a £6 - a - week engineering apprentice with two motorbikes and a Thames Van to run. But "HYDE' was already busy working the local pub scene for £20 a gig so I reckoned I could pay off a loan from my band earnings.
I can still hear my Mum screaming "A LOAN!!!!' - 'THIS FAMILY DOESN'T BORROW MONEY' - 'IF YOU WANT TO BUY SOMETHING YOU EARN THE MONEY FIRST!!!' Bloody hell, I took some flak for that one. I owned that guitar for the next twenty five years and it must have earned it's purchase price thousands of times over. My Mum even admitted recently that she may have been wrong on that particular loan thing but that was the first and last time I ever borrowed money for anything (except a mortgage - of course).
The neck was twice broken from it falling over on stage and a new neck was made by my mate and brilliant guitar maker "Douggie Binskin'. Sadly, the serial number was lost but I had a call recently from it's current owner who tracked me down from my name engraved on the custom tremolo arm. One day we may be reunited.
Looking at that picture again reminded me how things have changed. Both me and Micky Holness, the Bass player had twin 4 x 12 stacks and the PA was two x 4 x12 columns - in pubs!! - Jeez, we were loud!!
RED YAMAHA SGV 'Samurai'
I can't recall exactly when or where I bought this one but for some reason I remember clearly the grotty nightclub in Sturry, near Canterbury, the first time I played it. I think it must have been one of Yamahas first forays into electric guitars. It wasn't that pretty but the build quality was great and it played and sounded brilliant. Yamaha have reissued them from time to time but I'm on the lookout for a reasonably priced original like mine. Like most of the others, it was sold to help pay for something else.
So what next?
Well, I've decided to build me a new geetar that has everything I want in one package. SG shape, Active electronics, Built in Roland Synth Pick up, Reliable and accurate tremolo and with all the controls and switches where I want them.
Watch this space.
Oh, and the Martin Coletti. It's all restored and not too shabby for a 50 year-old. Here it is.
9/2/2012 Blimey - I've invented something - THE 'SUPERPLEC'. It's a combined plastic and metal plectrum. Here's how it happened. When I retired in the mid '80's I was able to create a screeching guitar sound - like an jet aeroplane landing, by dragging the edge of my plectrum down the length of the wire-wound strings. Since The fab Grandads have been around I've struggled to reproduce this sound with any plastic plectrum. I could do it with a coin or piece of thin stainless steel but that made too harsh a sound for regular strumming. I trawled the net without success for a combination metal/plastic plectrum but I did discover that, since I retired, hard, Tortoiseshell plectrums have been banned from sale. Fair play - I like Tortoises. This could be the reason - plastic pleccys are just not hard enough. In a flash of inspiration I glued a stainless pleccy to a plastic one with some double sided tape and Voila!! - The Superplec - and it works a treat. Next step - Dragons Den and wait for the millions £££ to come rolling in.
NEW HOMEBUILD SG GUITAR
OK, so here's the plan. To put together a guitar that's my favourite shape - a Gibson SG; with my favourite sound - my active Steinberger Synapse; with a built-in synthesizer pickup for my favourite synth - Roland GR33; with the best tremolo available - STETSBAR; with my favourite neck shape - early SG and with all the controls where I want 'em. Easy peasy.
Now, there are plenty of homebuild guitar kits around but not many SG's. The common ones are very cheap and a bit tacky, with the neck separate. I got this one, called a Faber SG '61 from Germany for 280 euros. It's solid mahogany (not the best grain pattern I've seen but OK). The neck is pre-fitted and is nicely bound all round. It has mother of pearl inlays and an ebony headstock laminate. It came pretty-much as you see it below - all I have done is give it a couple of quick coats of clear lacquer for protection whilst Iwork on it. The pile of bits on the right include the Stetsbar bridge/tremolo, EMGX active pickups and tone controls, the Roland GT3 synth pickup internal kit, battery holder, low battery warning light and all the wiring that goes with it.
I'm still waiting for the machine heads. I don't want a volume control for the guitar side and I don't need any of the preset switching controls for the synth - I do all that on the floor pedals.
I don't plan on going into too much detail here on the fab Grandads site - just the basics - that is, unless you want me to. I'm quite happy to tell it all in minute detail if anyone's interested. Just let me know.
Here's progress so far. TOP LEFT: The bridge/tremolo, Synth pickup, main pickup, pickup switch and tone controls are all trial-fitted. BOTTOM LEFT: This lot ain't all gonna fit in there so - RIGHT: Clamped upside down on my milling machine for some surgery to make a bigger recess in the back for all the electronics and battery box.
There you go - a bigger hole. The smaller, rectangular hole is for the battery box. I sweated a bit on this one because there's only 3mm thickness of wood left between the bottom of the hole and the front of the guitar. The main chamber extension doesn't need to be as deep as the original section. The small hole on the raised corner of the new recess is for mounting a sunken toggle switch for the main battery power on/off - sunken from the front that is. More on that later.
Sadly the SG didn't shape-up. Despite duplicating the pickups and electronics as closely as I could to my Steinberger, it just ain't got the same amazing tonal range. It's great for rocky stuff like The Who and ACDC but I can't be arsed to take two guitars to a gig and keep changing over.
Soooo, here's the new boy - a Steinberger Transcale Synapse Demon to give it it's full ID. Identical to my blue one in all but body shape and size.
OK, so it looks a bit Goth / Heavy Metal but it's still pretty light and hangs over my fat gut as nicely as the blue one. There's plenty of body space available so I machined the electronics cavity a little bigger and installed all the Roland Synth stuff inside instead of hanging off the back like the blue one. The sound is identical, it plays just as well and it looks a bit more Rock 'n Roll. We'll give it a go.
Although I'm generally quite happy with my live sound there are still some variations from venue to venue. Our 'stage' area may have a wooden floor - or a carpeted floor, a wall close behind the back line, nothing behind (open air), a high ceiling, a low ceiling, etc. These and many more variables all have an effect on the sound that I and everyone else in the room hears. All three of us work hard on our sound and it's important to us that everyone in our audience hears the best quality sound we can make. Pubs are probably the most difficult places to achieve this when some of our audience may even be in a different room!.
Now, all loudspeakers emit their sound in different directions depending on the frequency. That's to say, Bass frequencies from a loudspeaker are pretty-much non-directional and sound the same anywhere in the room, even right in front of or right behind the speaker cab. Treble frequencies, however, become more directional the higher they go until the brightest guitar tones project in a tight beam from the centre of the loudspeaker only to be dissipated as they bounce around the room. This is why I always try to have at least one speaker in my setup pointing at my head so that I hear the 'real' original sound as it leaves the amp. If I move to one side, the treble content drops off alarmingly. I find myself adjusting the treble level from gig to gig but I'm never sure that the audience is hearing exactly what I'm hearing. John and Chris are so far off the axis of my speakers that never hear exactly what I'm hearing.
So, I started researching the pros and cons of open back versus closed back speaker cabinets and the different sound characteristics of them and it was during a google search that I came across a gadget called a SONIC DIFFUSER. Sounds like an anti-Dalek device from Doctor Who doesn't it?
It's a very simple, round plastic frame like a 'Ban the Bomb' symbol with a four inch diameter disc at it's centre. Glued to one side of that disc is a titty-shaped cone. You screw the frame over the front of the loudspeaker, behind the grille with the cone facing the speaker. The theory is, that high frequencies, instead of projecting directly out of the centre of the speaker in a thin beam, are dispersed and deflected by the cone giving an even spread of high frequencies in all directions and hence a more even spread around the room. The cynic in me reckons that, like so many of these 'Miracle' products, if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is. But for a few quid each I thought it was worth a punt.
I tested one on my Mesa Boogie in the studio and it certainly reduced the on/off axis variation of the treble frequencies - but at the expense of losing a little brightness overall - which I may be able to compensate for. I'll also install one on the top speaker of my Fender amp (I use it on it's side). So that'll be two 12" speakers with Sonic Diffusers and two without.
The proof of the pudding ....... I'll let you know after a couple of gigs.
GEAR UPDATE 12TH JULY 2012
I should have remembered, from my old BAE days - if you're problem-solving or developing something - only change one thing at a time. That way, you'll know the direct result of each change as you make it. Change two things at once and you can't determine the actual effect of each change. I did just that - a new guitar and the Sonic Diffusers on one gig. My sound was crap. Luckily I had taken my Blue Steinberger and I changed back to that after a few numbers and got a slight improvement. But the Sonic Diffusers didn't really work (surprise, surprise). OK, they diffused the higher frequencies but also chopped a whole lot of level and seemed to drain the life from the sound. In the bin!!
I tried the new Steinberger Demon again at the next gig - without the Diffusers and it just didn't cut it. The synth side was fine but the guitar sound was a bit wooly and dull compared to the blue one. The electronics are supposed to be identical so I can only put the tonal difference down to the larger mass of wood in the body. So, again, I'm back to the good old Blue Transcale. There's just nothing else like it.
NEW MEGACAB JULY 2012
I'm very happy with my overall sound but the set-up is a bit cumbersome. My Mesa Boogie combo sits on an angled stand with the effects board on top and a 1 x 12" extension cab below. My Fender Frontman is alongside on another angled stand and a JBL 15" powered PA for the synth on a steel pole above it. That's eight pieces of kit so cart around and set up (and that's without the pedal boards at my feet).
Most venues are tight on space and this lot takes up quite a bit of it so I've been thinking how to reduce it's size and make life a little easier.