Simplify Your Life: Portable Power Tools for the Modern Guitarist
Compact yet loaded with effects, amp modeling, built-in speakers and much more, the eBand JS-10 from Roland is an ultra-portable practice station.
Remember the ’80s? I’m talking about crazy parties and limos, huge stadium tours, refrigerator racks, and 100-watt stacks. Rock ’n’ roll excess! But it’s 2013 now, and though gigs today require that you cover the same ground guitarists did back then, there’s a catch. Budgets are smaller than they used to be, and you are expected to do more— sometimes much more—for (and with) less. Fortunately, we guitarists have some amazing tools available these days to help us get killer guitar tones, without having to haul excessive amounts of gear to sessions and gigs. In this month’s column, I’m going to talk about some favorite musical tools that make my life a bit easier. Each one of these pieces of gear packs a huge range of tone and features into a compact package, ultimately allowing a guitarist to cover more ground with less.
I recently did some gigs with a well-known pop singer, and their camp had gotten used to touring with a very small crew consisting of just a front-of-house engineer, monitor engineer, and one tech. The tech was basically focused on the artist—leaving the rest of the 5-piece band to fend for themselves—and that’s how they’d always done it. We were playing some fairly big venues, including the first gig of the tour in an arena for about 6,000 people. Some of you might be wondering why there weren’t more techs at that level. In my experience, once an artist gets used to touring a particular way, they just don’t want to spend the money on more crew—no matter how successful they become. Younger musicians seem to be okay with doing more work for less dough, and most artists don’t want to pay to ship huge rigs overseas. Moral of the story: In order to compete, it’s important for touring sidemen to learn to be mostly self-sufficient.
Let’s say you have a gig where you need a ton of different sounds at your fingertips. How do you cover nylon-string sounds, 6- and 12-string acoustic sounds, Strat, Tele, and humbucker tones in various tunings—and maybe even a sitar part—without hauling a bunch of guitars to the gig? Go and check out a guitar that uses modeling technology. The VG Stratocaster from Fender and Roland is a great choice because it will do everything a standard Strat will do, as well as provide all the aforementioned sounds, and more. It’s an incredible tool that beats lugging 10 guitars around, and I’ve used mine for various gigs and sessions. The Variax series of guitars from Line 6 is another option worth checking out.
I have a few pedalboards, and my smallest one is no slouch. I use it for sessions and gigs where portability is a must, so I chose pedals that would provide maximum tone and versatility. There are a number of manufacturers producing pedals that do more than one thing—which I call “dual” pedals—and they usually have two footswitches, allowing a player to access the different effects individually. I keep four of these pedals on my little, yet extremely powerful, pedalboard: a Strymon Flint for reverb and tremolo, a Suhr Koko Boost for clean and mid boost, a JHS Sweet Tea for distortion, a TS-808-style overdrive, and a Red Witch Medusa for chorus and tremolo.
Amp modeling is nothing new, but it’s come so far in recent times. With advancements such as profiling (the technology used for the Kemper Profiling Amplifier) and tone matching (used for the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II), guitarists can now essentially duplicate the tone of any amp, speaker, or mic chain, and then store it as a preset to carry it wherever they go.
The Kemper Profiling Amplifier is a curious- and modern-looking device that’s about the size of a lunchbox, while the Axe-Fx II is a more traditional 2-rackspace unit. The Kemper has a basic selection of effects, but its forte is in profiling and storing the tones of amps and cabs with uncanny detail and realism. The Axe-Fx II has a full complement of effects that can be routed in any conceivable fashion, and with the amp and cabinet modeling enabled, you can replace an entire amp and effects rig. By disabling the amp and cabinet modeling, the Axe-Fx II also functions nicely as a full-featured effects processor that can be used with traditional guitar amps.
Be it for direct recording or playing live, there are some die-hards that still scoff at the idea of using units like these. But modeling has really gotten to the point where even tubeamp purists have to stand up and take notice. Globe-trotting guitarist Dweezil Zappa has totally replaced his amp rig and two refrigerator- sized racks with a pair of Axe-Fx IIs, saving untold thousands in shipping costs. Likewise, I left my traditional rigs at home for a couple of European tours with Melissa Etheridge, and used the Axe-Fx by running it direct to the PA.
A Portable Practice Solution
Plugging into an amp to practice isn’t always practical in, say, a cramped dressing room or the back lounge of a bus. The best solution I’ve found (and currently my favorite piece of gear) is the Roland eBand JS-10. With built-in speakers, it’s a totally self-contained audio player that also boasts amp modeling and effects. It has 350 pre-loaded audio loops and drum grooves for you to jam along with, but you can easily add your own audio files for playback, too. I’ve been running my laptop into it with great results. It’s just a killer, portable, simple all-in-one practice solution, and it sounds fantastic.
Now more than ever, modern guitarists have incredible variety of powerful and portable tools for the studio, stage, and practice room to choose from. I said it last month and I’ll say it again: It’s never been a better time to be a guitarist!
Pete Thorn is an L.A.-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album Guitar Nerd is available through iTunes and cdbaby.com.You can read more about his career and music at peterthorn.com.