When it comes to forming patterns, no computer algorithm can outperform the human mind. Sometimes we must change directions to have a breakthrough.
Every now and then, a misguided guitar player asks me something like: “What should I do to become a better guitar player?” For the record, I’m probably not the one to ask. I suspect I don’t really know what I’m doing in guitar or life, but I love to play music, and I’ve noticed some improvement in my playing over the years, so here goes. A surefire way to get past a plateau and become a better player is to stop playing guitar … then dive deep into a different instrument.
You probably remember the agony of making an F chord, and later a barre chord, thinking your fingers just could not do it. Eventually you get it, then jump over the next hurdle, be it learning the pentatonic box, etc., until eventually, you notice that what you’re playing sounds like music. We make improvements quickly on the journey from beginner to intermediate, and before you know it, you can jam with others and pick up enough licks and tricks where you sound like a guitar player. But eventually we hit a plateau where we quit advancing and that’s where most of us stop. I suspect we plateau because humans love patterns, and once you’re in a pattern, it’s hard to see beyond it.
Humans can’t help but look for patterns. Our neocortex (the outermost layer of the brain found only in mammals) gives us our ability to recognize patterns, and we do it well. Although computer algorithms can spot patterns, no algorithm can outperform the human mind. Our body feeds our pattern addiction by giving us a fun hit of dopamine when we recognize one.
How do you break the pattern of patterns? You have to shift from thinking about patterns to melodies. This has made me a lot freer in my note choices on guitar, and it’s made me a bit more forgiving with myself.
Neil deGrasse Tyson explains: “Over centuries of evolution, humans’ pattern recognition skills determined natural selection. Hunters skilled at spotting prey and predator and telling poisonous plants from healthy ones offered them a better chance of survival than those blind to the patterns. It enabled the survivors to pass on those pattern-friendly genes to future generations.”
Learning guitar is learning chord, scale, and riff patterns. For most of us, the guitar neck becomes a series of patterns rather than an opportunity for melodies. The more you play, the more diverse your bag of patterns becomes, so you have more to shoehorn into any situation. Ultimately, they’re still patterns. How do you break the pattern of patterns? You have to shift from thinking about patterns to melodies. When you attempt to play an instrument where you know no patterns, all you can do is search for melodies.
I’ve loved pedal steel since I first noticed it on Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” but it’s such a complex, baffling, and expensive instrument that I never considered jumping in. As I aged and watched working guitarists get younger, I noticed that steel players remained mostly old crusty dudes. When I realized steel could extend my career, I was motivated to buy one. I’m glad I did, as this is one of the few times I made a prediction that was dead on. Pedal steel has opened a ton of gig opportunities, but it’s also expanded my concept of music and done more to improve my guitar playing than another 10,000 hours of just guitar.
When you dive deep into another instrument, you’ll find yourself approaching it more naively, like a kid, not looking for patterns but rather discovering what music will fall out of the instrument. There will be lots of surprises where you don’t know what note you’re going to get. Look at it like Bob Ross—those weird notes are just happy little trees. Those happy accidents have led me to playing much more interesting parts than if it went as I planned. This has made me a lot freer in my note choices on guitar, and I’m a bit more forgiving with myself.
When you start exploring technique on a new instrument, you can’t help but reevaluate how you play guitar. For instance, muting or blocking is wildly important on pedal steel, because if you don’t mute, you’ll have a constant discord of a b7, major 7 ringing over everything. It’s a cacophony. So, when I got back on a 6-string, I noticed where my slop was ringing and how some palm muting, like on pedal steel, makes my notes clearer. I’ve always muted, but now I’m listening closer, realizing when I need to apply more or less. Similarly, playing pedal steel with my fingers (fingerpicks) has made me less dependent on a flatpick when I play guitar. Although I’ve always used hybrid picking on guitar, I now use my fingers more and do more blocking with my fingers on guitar. It sounds smoother, cleaner, and seems to flow better.
Life doesn’t have to be the same old thing. Try something totally new and see how it makes you see everything in a new light.
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For these new recreations, Fender focuses on the little things that make original golden-era Fenders objects of obsession.
If there’s one thing players love more than new guitars, it’s old guitars—the unique feel, the design idiosyncrasies, the quirks in finish that all came from the pre-CNC era of instrument manufacturing. These characteristics become the stuff of legend, passed on through the years via rumors and anecdotes in shops, forums, and community networks.
It’s a little difficult to separate fact from fiction given these guitars aren’t easy to get your hands on. Fender Telecasters manufactured in the 1950s and 1960s sell for upwards of $20,000. But old is about to become new again. Fender’s American Vintage II series features 12 year-specific electric guitar and bass models from over two decades, spanning 1951 to 1977, that replicate most specs on their original counterparts, but are produced with modern technologies that ensure uniform build and feel.
Chronologically, the series begins and ends, fittingly, with the Telecaster—starting with the butterscotch blonde, blackguard 1951 Telecaster (built with an ash body, one-piece U-shaped maple neck, and 7.25" radius fretboard) and ending with the 1977 Telecaster Custom, which features a C-shaped neck, a CuNiFe magnet-based Wide Range humbucker in the neck position, and a single-coil at the bridge. The rest of the series spans the highlights of Fender’s repertoire: the 1954 Precision Bass, 1957 Stratocaster in ash or alder, 1960 Precision Bass, 1961 Stratocaster, 1963 Telecaster, 1966 Jazz Bass, 1966 Jazzmaster, 1972 Tele Thinline, 1973 Strat, and 1975 Telecaster Deluxe. The 1951 Telecaster, 1957 Strat, 1961 Strat, and 1966 Jazz Bass will also be offered as left-handed models. Street prices run from $2,099 to $2,399.
Fender '72 American Vintage II Telecaster Thinline Demo | First Look
Spec’d To Please
Every guitar in the series sports the era’s 7.25" radius fretboard, a mostly abandoned spec found on Custom Shop instruments—Mexico-made Vintera models, and Fender’s Artist Series guitars like the Jimmy Page, Jason Isbell, and Albert Hammond Jr. models. Most modern Fenders feature a 9.5" radius, while radii on Gibsons reach upwards of 12". Videos experimenting with the 7.25" radius’ playability pull in tens of thousands of viewers, suggesting both a modern fascination with and a lack of exposure to the radius among some younger and less experienced players.
T.J. Osborne of the Brothers Osborne picks an American Vintage II 1966 Jazzmaster in Dakota red.
Bringing back the polarizing 7.25" radius across the entire series is a gamble, and it’s been nearly five years since Fender released year-specific models. But Fender executive vice president Justin Norvell says that two years ago when the Fender brain trust was conceptualizing the American Vintage II line, they decided the time was right to “go back to the well.”
“We’ve been doing the same [models], the same years, over and over again for 30 years,” says Norvell. “We really wanted to change the line and expand it into some new things that we hadn’t done before and pick some different years that we thought were cool.”
“It takes a lot of doing to go back in time and sort of uncover the secret-sauce recipes.”—Steve Thomas, Fender
To decide on which years to produce, Fender drew from what Norvell calls a “huge cauldron of information” from Custom Shop master builders to collectors with vintage models to former employees from the 1950s and 1960s. The hands-on manufacturing of Fender’s golden years meant guitars produced within the same year would have marked differences in design and finish. So, the team had to procure multiple versions of the same year’s guitar to decide which models to replicate. Norvell says some purists would advocate for the “cleanest, most down-the-middle kind of variant,” while others would push for more esoteric and rare versions. Norvell says that ultimately, the team picked the models that they felt best represented “the throughline of history on our platforms.”
Simple and agile, the Fender Precision Bass—here in its new American Vintage II ’54 incarnation—earned its reputation in the hands of Bill Black, James Jamerson, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and other foundational players.
Norvell says the American Vintage II series was developed, in part, in response to calls to reproduce vintage guitars. Just like with classic cars, he says, people are passionate about year-specific guitars. Plus, American Vintage II fits perfectly with the pandemic-stoked yearning for bygone times. “For some people, these specific years are representative of experiences they had when they were first playing guitar, or a favorite artist that played guitars from these eras,” says Norvell. “These are touchstones for those stories, and that makes them very desirable.”
Fender’s electric guitar research and design team, led by director Steve Thomas, dug through the company’s archive of original drawings and designs—dating all the way back to Leo Fender’s original shop in Fullerton, California. They found detailed notes, including some documenting body woods that changed mid-year on certain models. Halfway through 1956, for example, Stratocaster bodies switched from ash to alder. That meant the American Vintage II 1957 Stratocaster needed to be alder, too. That, in turn, meant ensuring enough alder was on hand to fulfill production needs.
Among the series’ Stratocaster recreations is this 1973-style instrument, with an ash body, maple C-profile neck, rosewood fretboard, and the company’s Pure Vintage single-coils.
Thomas and his team discovered another piece of the production puzzle when researching how pickups for that same 1957 Strat were made. “We realized that if we incorporated a little bit more pinch control on the winders, we could more effectively mimic the way pickups would have been hand-wound in the ’50s,” says Thomas. “It takes a lot of doing to go back in time and sort of uncover the secret-sauce recipes.”
Thomas proudly calls the guitars “some of the best instruments we’ve ever made here in the Fender plant,” pointing to the level of detail put into design features, including more delicate lacquer finishes which take longer to cure and dry, and vintage-correct tweed cases for some guitars. New pickups were incorporated in the series, like a reworking of Seth Lover’s famed CuNiFe Wide Range humbuckers, which were discontinued around 1981. Even more minute details, like the width of 12th fret dots and the material used for them, were labored over. Three different models in the line feature clay dot inlays at unique, year-specific spacings.
Ironically, modern CNC manufacturing now makes these design quirks consistent features in mass-produced instruments. While the hand-crafted guitars from the ’50s and ’60s varied a lot from instrument to instrument. “Everything needs to be located perfectly, and it wasn’t necessarily back in the day,” says Norvell. “Now, it can be.”
Don’t Look Back
With this new series so firmly planted in the rose-tinted past, Fender does run the risk of netting only vintage-obsessed players. But Norvell says the team, despite being sticklers for period-correct detail, sought to strike a balance between vintage specs, practicality, and playability. The 1957 Stratocaster, for example, has a 5-way switch rather than the original’s 3-way switch. Norvell also asserts that the “ergonomic” old-school radius feels great when chording. “It might not be [right for] a shred machine, but it feels great and effortless.”
The 1966 Jazz Bass is also represented, shown here in a left-handed version.
Norvell also pushes back on the notion that Fender is playing it safe by indulging nostalgia and leaning on their past successes. He says that while the vintage models are some of the most desirable on the market, the team “purposely did not stick to the safe bets,” citing unusual year models like the 1954 P Bass and the 1973 Stratocaster.There’s a good reason why anything that hails back to “the good ol’ days” hits home with every generation. We’re constantly plagued by a belief that what came before is better than what we’ve got now. But with the American Vintage II series, Fender makes the case that guitars from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s can very easily be a relevant part of the 2020s.
The Sunn O))) Life Pedal circuit has been meticulously tweaked from the original and includes a third footswitch.
Sunn O))) present an enhanced version of the Sunn O))) Life Pedal Octave Distortion + Booster, in collaboration with their comrades at EarthQuaker Devices. The Sunn O))) Life Pedal circuit has been meticulously tweaked from the original to squeeze every last drop of heavy crushing tone available. The octave section has been fine tuned to make it more pronounced without losing the bottom end and we added a third footswitch, utilizing Flexi-Switch Technology, for the octave to allow an additional method of quick and radical tone shaping.
“Working on this new version has been a great continuity of this collaboration which feels so right, and sounds so right,” says Stephen O’Malley. “It’s a really beautiful pedal and it’s also a beautiful art collaboration. I think we made something really interesting that people can enjoy to use for their own music, but also, it makes a lot of sense to release a piece of distortion as a release for our band. We’re really happy that this is a trilogy now.”
The Sunn O))) Life Pedal is designed to represent the core front end chain used in those sessions, to drive the tubes of the band’s multiple vintage Sunn O))) Model T amplifiers (or take your fancy) into overload ecstasy. This is a 100w tube amp full stack’s holy dream, or its apostate nightmare.
Sunn O))) Life Pedal is a distortion with a blendable analog octave up and a booster
- Features 3 different clipping options: Symmetrical Silicon, Asymmetrical Silicon & LED, and pure OpAmp Drive
- Distortion and booster can be used independently
- Expression and footswitch control over analog octave up
- Octave blend allows total control over how much Octave is mixed into the circuit
- True bypass with silent relay based soft touch switches
- Features EarthQuaker Devices’ proprietary Flexi-Switch® Technology
- Lifetime warranty
- Current Draw: 15 mA
- Octave Distortion: Input impedance: 1 MΩ / Output impedance: <1 kΩ
- Booster: Input Impedance: 500 kΩ / Output Impedance: <1 kΩ
- List Price: $299 USD
Sunn O))) Life Pedal Guitar Demo
Module 4 was designed to be a highly versatile take on a classic vintage compressor - Dan Armstrong's Orange Squeezer from the ‘70s.
The Module 4 can be transformed to a standard 'Full Frequency' range compressor by pushing the Orange button. Basically, the user gets two compression flavors and they are easily distinguishable. Orange brings a warm, vintage sound and feel while 'Full Frequency range' brings a more modern, brighter, clearer tone. The pedal is equipped with several colorful, and practical options, all packed into the new DryBell enclosure line.
- Output - Controls the output volume (make-up gain) of the compressor. It also acts as a high headroom and distortion-free clean Boost, thanks to the high internal power supply voltage
- Tone - Controls the overall high-frequency spectrum of the unit Blend - Sets the mix of dry and compressed signals
- Attack - Controls the reaction time of the compressor
- Release - Controls the time before the unit releases or stops compression
- Preamp - Controls the input gain of (any) instrument
- ORANGE pushbutton - Enables/disables the ORANGE mode. When the ORANGE mode is off, Module 4 becomes a 'Full Frequency range' compressor
- Expander - Automatically attenuates incoming background noise
- 3-color compression level meter - A visual representation of gain reduction and input signal level
- LOW END cut – Option to keep or remove certain low-end frequencies
- True bypass or buffered bypass options
- Orange button also works in buffered bypass when the pedal is turned off. In that case, the buffered bypass reacts like the Orange Squeezer’s Front-end, keeping the bypass EQ very similar to the EQ when the pedal is active
- Power on settings save option
- Dot marks around knobs - Represent the settings of the original OrangeSqueezer
- Standard power supply 9-18V DC, 100mA minimum
DryBell Module 4 is available for $315.00. The first batch of Module 4s is available exclusively from the DryBell webshop.
For more information, please visit drybell.com.
DryBell Module 4 demo (official)
The Flat Earth has minimal knob count and feed-forward compression circuitry.
The Mayfly Flat Earth uses Feed-Forward circuitry which determines the amount of compression by analyzing the signal before it’s compressed. Old school compressors (you know: the Red one, the Orange one, the Grey one)use Feed-Back circuitry which looks at the signal after it’s already compressed. This results in noise, pumping, and tone-loss.
Boutique pedals based on older designs try to get around these problems by adding more knobs: blend knobs, tone knobs, etc. According to Mayfly Audio, "The Flat Earth has minimal knob count to allow guitarists to get to ‘wow’ quicker."
- Feed-forward compression circuitry: great compression that’s easy to setup
- No pumping or other compression artifacts
- Very low noise floor, very low distortion
- Level, sustain, and attack controls. That’s all you need
- Full bypass using relays with Fail Safe (automatically switches to bypass if the pedal loses power)
- Cast aluminum enclosure with stunning artwork
- MSRP $149 USD ($199 CAD) direct online
Introducing the MayFly Flat Earth Compressor
For more information, please visit mayflyaudio.com.