Nashville’s Michael Majett uses two amps—an Ampeg B-15N and a Markbass TTE 500—to go deep and low.
When we spoke, bassist Michael Majett had just checked off an item on his bucket list: playing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. For Majett, the headlining set with the War and Treaty at the festival’s Blues Stage wasn’t just a gig. It was a way to connect with the history of the festival and what it represents: the deep legacy of American music and culture that’s synonymous with the Crescent City, and especially the Black heritage that birthed rock ’n’ roll, blues, jazz, and R&B, plus some of the world’s tastiest cuisine.
When it comes to bass tone, Majett’s also interested in tradition and taste. “There are two tones I really want to hear,” he relates. “There’s the James Jamerson thing—or maybe a better description would be the Chuck Rainey thing, where you’ve got flatwounds and you’re muting—and then there’s that grind-y rock thing, which is slightly overdriven but has a lot of depth. And I can get right in the zone with my amps, although they’re very different.”
Majett’s 1973 B-15N evokes all the classic charm of the historic Ampeg model but doesn’t fit into a backpack.
At New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, he used a backline amp, of course. But at home in Nashville, where he’s earned a reputation as a live-gig MVP since relocating from Atlanta with the contemporary Christian band Truth 24 years ago, he’s got a pair of workhorses that help propel his penchant for deep-resonating melodic grooves: a Ampeg B-15N and a hybrid Markbass TTE 500 Randy Jackson signature model.
Depth is key to Majett’s playing—in both his round, rich, plump sound, which seems to push more air than a jet engine, and his onstage versatility. He also regularly performs with Billy Prine (John Prine’s brother), country legacy artist T. Graham Brown, soulful singer-songwriter Jason Eskridge, haunting vocalist and songwriter Luella, and prolific songwriter, singer, and guitarist Tim Carroll. His gigs with Carroll, who was featured in this column in August 2021, are especially free ranging. Carroll is an edgy improvisor with a huge repertoire of songs and styles, who drops new tunes into his typical two-and-a-half hour sets without rehearsal. And there’s no set list. So, Majett has to be ready for everything from blasting punk roots ’n’ roll to jams that evoke Led Zeppelin. On top of that, Majett seems to be in the cell phone of every Nashville bandleader who might need a sub, so if you spend even a short time club hopping in Music City, you’re bound to see him onstage.
“There’s the James Jamerson thing—or maybe a better description would be the Chuck Rainey thing, where you’ve got flatwounds and you’re muting.”
For most local shows, Majett carries the TTE 500—a 500-watt hybrid head that generates tones with three ECC83 preamp tubes, plus an ECC81 for its compressor. The amp has old-school controls: 3-band EQ, gain, master, and compressor dials, plus a modern twist in the “colour” knob, a filter Majett says makes the amp sound “more tube-y. I’m an all-tube lover, and this comes really close. I keep my EQs straight up and keep the gain low. The odd thing is, I can turn it all the way up and it really doesn’t distort. It gets a little more trebly, but that’s okay.”
He seems to favor his 1973 B-15N more, but, even with a 1x15 cab, the TTE 500 setup weighs just a little over half of the Ampeg flip-top combo’s roughly 85 pounds. “I got the Ampeg 20 years ago, and back then I didn’t mind carrying it everywhere,” he says. “I wanted one for years, and when I finally got it, it was perfect. It’s only 30 watts, but is really loud and has that great, classic tone.” The all-tube rumbler has three 6SL7 preamp bottles, a 5AR4 for the rectifier, and two 6L6 power tubes, with bass and treble controls and a 15" Eminence speaker.
While Markbass no longer produces the TTE 500, two updated versions—including an 800-watter—are still manufactured.
Whether Majett plugs in his Fender Jaguar or his Nate Mendel signature P bass, the results are essentially the same—a big, warm sound with a dapple of crunch that’s perfect for his mix of melody and punch. His EQ settings for both amps are the same, and he’s found the sweet spot for the Ampeg’s master volume is around 10 or 11 o’clock. Majett also loves the tang of grit that occurs when he jumps the two channels on the B-15N—a stunt also favored by plenty of vintage Marshall owners.
The versatile bassist also digs octave pedals and uses a Boss OC-2 and the dirtier, wilder 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre. His latest acquisition is a Shaw Audio Tube Injection preamp. But the core of his instrumental voice really lies in those amps. “Honestly,” Majett observes, “with both of those amps, I’d have to work hard to sound bad.”
Updated versions of six of their most well-known pedals packed with new features like a powerful new ARM processor.
The new pedals - DIG, Flint, El Capistan, Deco, Lex and blueSky - are updated versions of some of Strymon’s most popular models, and now feature a USB-C connection for updating firmware and MIDI communication, a TRS MIDI jack for bidirectional MIDI communication, full stereo inputs and outputs with a rear-panel Mono/Stereo switch, a premium JFET input circuit for the ultimate in tone and touch response, robust MIDI implementation allowing MIDI clock sync and onboard storage for up to 300 presets, and a powerful new ARM processor that has more power and consumes less energy than previous iterations. The user interface for each pedal has also been updated to provide easier and deeper control of important parameters, designed for users to get to their favorite (and undiscovered) sounds faster and easier than ever before.
“We know that all of these pedals have a large and dedicated fan base”, said Dave Freuhling,Strymon co-founder and chief firmware guru. “So it was important that the improvements andupdates we worked on didn’t take away from what made them so popular in the first place”.Strymon’s Head of Marketing Sean Halley continues, “everything we changed was done for areason, because the goal was not only to add some modern features that customers havebeen repeatedly asking for, but also to make sure that all six pedals are much easier to use. Atthe end of the day these pedals can recreate all of the sounds that were previously available inthe original versions, but now they sound and feel better, are far more powerful and flexible, and are ultimately easier to use than we could have hoped when each model was originally re-leased.”
DIG, Deco, El Capistan and blueSky have a new street price of $379.00 US, and Lex and Flint now street for $349.00. The pedals are available directly from Strymon and a select group of dealers worldwide. More info at: www.strymon.net.
New bracing and pickups make this mid-priced take on a Gretsch classic a lively and engaging inspiration machine.
Smooth playability on par with much more expensive instruments. Airy, open pickup sounds with lots of clean-to-mean latitude.
Blue finish is pretty but thick in spots. Vintage sticklers might miss some old-school Filter’Tron bite.
Though big hollowbodies like the Gretsch G6120 are beautiful and an essential ingredient in countless classic records, they can be a tricky playing experience for the uninitiated. Navigable fretboard space is limited by solidbody standards. Big bodies can feel bulky. They’re sometimes feedback prone in high-volume situations, too. Consequently, I’ve watched many solidbody-oriented chums who rarely play hollowbodies handle a big Gretsch with the baffled look of a spacefarer deciphering an alien tongue.
This latest affordable, mid-line evolution of Gretsch’s classic 6120, the re-designed Electromatic G5420T, smooths navigation of those intrinsic challenges. A new approach to trestle block bracing and FT-5E Filter’Tron pickups give the guitar a zingy, lively, and surprisingly feedback-resistant resonance. And the ultra-smooth playability makes it relatable for the average solidbody player. Together, the improvements make the G5420 a welcoming and intuitive-feeling vehicle for the less-orthodox modes of guitar expression that big Gretsch’s enable.
New Shoes in Blue
Trestle bracing, as a name and design concept, graced Gretschs beginning in the ’50s. That system utilized a bridge-like pair of laterally oriented braces. Trestle block bracing is different. It situates a slim, light center bock that is shaped like a bridge arch at a 90-degree angle between two straight, lateral braces. In one sense, the construction is akin to a center-block semihollow body. But the Gretsch trestle block has much less mass and a smaller footprint than the center block in, say, a Gibson 335, making the design a great compromise between rigidity, stability, and resonance. The effects, at least to my ears, are audible. And one thing every staffer that touched this guitar agreed upon was that this was the liveliest affordable Gretsch that any of us remembered playing.
The G5420T also feels like a dream underneath the fingers. The 12" radius makes string bends extra easy. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, and, yes, fleet-fingered Chet Atkins picking feel effortless. And in general the playability is so nice you often forget that notes much past the 17th or 18th fret are a pretty uncomfortable reach. The control layout is a familiar take on Gretsch convention. The master volume control on the treble-side horn is always a blast to use for volume swells. And while the bridge volume is situated pretty far aft on the body, it’s easy enough to reach for fine tuning adjustments and corrections to the neck/bridge blend. The Bigsby, meanwhile, is both fluid, smooth, and, in relative terms, pretty tuning-stable if you’re not too aggressive.
You don’t achieve playability and intonation like that on our review model without sweating the details, and the 5420’s neck, nut, fretboard, and frets all feel very much of a piece.
Construction quality is typically very good in Gretsch’s more affordable Streamliner and Electromatic, and the G5420T does its part to hold up the family reputation. You don’t achieve playability and intonation like that on our review model without sweating the details, and the 5420’s neck, nut, fretboard, and frets all feel very much of a piece. Little details like the binding around the f-holes are also flawlessly executed. One of the only overt signs of the G5420T’s mid-priced status is the polyester-azure-blue finish, which, while dazzling, looks a bit ripply and thick in spots. Even so, in sunlight, it reveals traces of pearlescent turquoise and lake placid blue, depending on the angle from which you view it.
Balance and Brawn
As Gretsch tells it, the new Filter’Trons are designed for stronger bass output and more articulate high end. I don’t know if I would call the low-end exceptionally robust. But 6th string notes exhibit a concise, classy punchiness that resonates with just-right complexity and gracefully adds balance and ballast to chords. Some players expect low notes on a Gretsch hollowbody to explode with the heft of a grand piano. But the chiming low notes of a Fender Rhodes electric piano are a more apt analogy for the 5420’s present, overtone-rich-but-understated bottom-string output. This same knack for balance translates to awesome, articulate overdrive and fuzz tones (though, needless to say, it is important to mind the feedback when messing with the latter).
High-end output, meanwhile, is beautiful. First- and 2nd-string notes ring presently and in graceful balance with the rest of the strings, lending a kinetic but not-too-hot edge to leads and chords. And anyone with an affinity for vintage rockabilly or late-’60s West Coast psychedelia will love the way these high notes hop, quaver, and sing with a waggle of the Bigsby. For this author, anyway, it’s a visceral, addictive thrill—particularly with a big Fender amp and a heap of spring reverb and slapback echo.
Any player well versed and at ease with the idiosyncrasies of a Gretsch hollowbody will love the way the 5420 sounds and feels. And on the latter count, certainly, the 5420T is the equal of many much more pricey guitars. It’s very easy to imagine an upmarket or vintage Gretsch owner who sweats gigging with an expensive axe taking this guitar out instead and feeling right at home. The pickups are very well balanced, present, and detailed. And the Bigsby is smooth and invites all manner of twitchy or surfy vibrato moves. Most important is how these factors conspire to offer an uncommon playing experience with an upmarket feel. “Riff machine” may be a term that you could apply to many guitars, but the combination of the 5420T’s playabililty and open, detailed, and balanced pickups add up to a deep well of habit-smashing inspiration—all at a very nice price, to boot.
Gretsch G5420T Electromatic Hollowbody Demo | First Look
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