The Oklahoma outfit's latest is an addicting auto-wah filled with useful features and wicked tones.
Audio clips were recorded with a PRS SE HBII into a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe mic’d up with a Shure SM57 into Logic Pro X.
Rhythm guitar (right side): Bridge pickup, peak at 3 o’clock, gain at noon, band pass mode, hi range
Lead guitar (left side): Middle pickup, peak at 1 o’clock, gain at 1 o’clock, low pass mode, hi range
Authentic vintage-style tones. Handy output level feature.
A bit thin sounding in the high-pass mode.
Ease of Use:
Keeley’s latest iteration of their dynamically funky envelope filter is addictive, musical, and just plain fun. This version includes a handy output-gain trim pot on the side, a direction control switch, and the expected gain, mode, and peak controls. The Neutrino is based around an optocoupler, much like the classic Mu-Tron, which gives it a more nuanced (and pleasing) dynamic range. In other digital-based circuits the tracking can be questionable, with harsh high end, but Keeley’s Neutrino design squashes those concerns.
In short, an envelope filter responds to the output of your instrument to emulate how your foot would sweep a traditional wah pedal. Think of Jerry Garcia on “Shakedown Street” or Steve Wonder’s clavinet sound on “Higher Ground.” Each mode of the Neutrino offers a different tonal take: some are funky, others more atmospheric and lo-fi, but they are all musical and deep. I jumped in after the Garcia “quack” tone and was stoked to see how close the Neutrino could get. The response felt immediate and satisfying. For harder funk-style strumming, I backed off the gain a bit and upped the peak control. Watch out Nile Rodgers! Keeley has once again improved on a beloved classic and made it affordable, rugged, and accessible.
Test Gear: PRS SE Hollowbody II, Schroeder Chopper TL, Fender Hot Rod Deluxe
Using custom guitars, loops, and carefully chosen effects, the Austrian 6-stringer blends jazz and classical mindsets to define the elegant, retro-nuevo sound of his new ECM album, Angular Blues.
In the early 1980s, Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel moved to Boston with something of a split musical identity. He went to the New England Conservatory and divided his time between jazz studies with legendary guitar instructor Mick Goodrick and classical lessons with noted composer, player, and teacher David Leisner. With Goodrick, Muthspiel flatpicked electric guitar and focused on jazz theory and improvisation, while with Leisner he embraced traditional classical technique and repertoire.
But for Muthspiel, the Conservatory proved to be a crossroads: By 1986 he'd not only transferred to Berklee and committed completely to jazz, but also started gigging, taking the coveted spot in noted vibraphonist Gary Burton's touring band—a gig akin to a rock shredder being invited to hit the road with Ozzy Osbourne. Other notable guitarists to hold that chair include Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Julian Lage. And he began a decades-long musical collaboration playing in duos with Goodrick.
Although Muthspiel planted his flag firmly in the jazz camp, he never abandoned the nylon-string classical guitar. His live performances and recordings still feature him alternating between electric and acoustic, and he maintains a sense of purity to each approach. He plays acoustic guitar seated, sans amp or effects, his manicured nails hovering above the soundhole, while for electric-guitar pieces he stands, using either a flatpick or a hybrid picking technique, and runs his signal through a battery of pedals, loopers, and usually a Vox AC30.
But switching instruments is just one facet of what Muthspiel does. His discography includes more than 40 albums as a leader, and many other appearances as either a collaborator or sideman. He's also an accomplished composer and improviser, comfortable in multiple jazz idioms—from hard bop to free jazz. And although his core group is a trio, he's not afraid to experiment with other types of lineups.
Muthspiel's most recent trio release, Angular Blues, features bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, and is both forward-looking and traditional. The 55-year-old shows off his technical prowess on the angular, intricate, and harmonically challenging title track, and blows through choruses on “Ride," his first time recording bop-style "rhythm changes" tune for ECM. The album features two “Kanons"—one in 5/4 and one in 6/8— which incorporate his unique approach to delays in a classical-style contrapuntal round. The album's overall sound conforms to the ECM playbook as well: recorded live with minimal edits and pristine fidelity. And while Muthspiel didn't fly his hefty AC30 to the Tokyo studio where Angular was tracked, they had a vintage Fender Princeton on hand that did the trick.
We spoke with Muthspiel just as it was becoming clear that his spring tour of the U.S. was about to be canceled. We discussed his apprenticeship under Burton and Goodrick, the distinct phases of his recording career, his never-ending fascination with loopers and delays, the intricacies of right- and left-hand technique, his long-term relationships with luthiers Nico Moffa and Jim Redgate, and why he still keeps his approaches to the electric and acoustic guitar separate.
Did you start as a classical player?
I started playing violin when I was 6, and I started playing guitar when I was 12. My whole first years, until I was about 14 or 15, were spent with classical music. Then I discovered jazz, got into it, and started playing electric guitar. I listened to Ralph Towner and people like that who made a bridge to the improvised world, and I went that way. I kept both things up, classical and jazz, until I was 22. I went to the States and studied in Boston with Mick Goodrick, who was at the New England Conservatory and teaching jazz, and David Leisner, who was teaching classical guitar. I went to Berklee two years later, because I had decided to go for jazz all the way, and then I met Gary Burton and so on. But the jazz and classical thing was parallel for a while.
Your studies with David Leisner were straight classical?
Totally. I was playing concerts with classical guitar and doing competitions and all that stuff. It's a small repertoire of really great music. There is a lot of great music you can play on the guitar, but strictly classical written music, some of the top guys have not written for the instrument. You have that wonderful lute stuff that Bach wrote, and all the great Renaissance lute music that you can play on guitar, and then some really cool modern music, but it is not such a big pool of music as compared to violin or piano. That also contributed to my decision to go all the way into jazz.
How long were you with Gary Burton?
I was playing in his band for two years, and it was an amazing thing for me to be hired by him. We toured quite a bit. I was still studying at Berklee, but we toured a lot in the States. That was a nice band. I met bassist Larry Grenadier in that band for the first time—who I played with a lot up until now—and Don McCaslin was on saxophone. Gary is a very clear and strong leader, and very supportive. It was really a good experience for me.
Did you start recording around that time as well?
My first record under my own name was a trio album that I recorded in the States, but I already did some recordings before, with my brother. The first phase of my improvised music was together with my brother, Christian, who's two years older. He is a pianist, trombonist, and composer, and we played together at home with every instrument that we had—with all the tools and toys we could find. We didn't know anything about jazz then, but it was the start of this kind of improvised music. My first records I did with him. But I did a trio record on my own, and Gary Burton was really helpful. He produced another album for me, where I could pick and choose who I played with. That was a great thing. He was generally really supportive. Him and Mick Goodrick, who was also a huge guy for me.
TIDBIT: Muthspiel says ECM's approach to recording is “an aesthetic where the natural flow of the improvisation of the musicians is captured as well as possible. It is about the moment—to catch the moment of the jazz musicians' conversation."
Mick was a strict, tough, great teacher, and, at the same time, we had a duo going on. Eventually we made a record much later. He has many cool approaches to harmony, and to the fretboard. Mick has a mathematic brain, and also a philosophical brain. He's thought very deeply about the instrument his whole life, and he knows how to communicate that to students. He was such a legendary teacher. He taught a lot of great players, and he was a fantastic influence.
How has your approach to recording changed since you started?
I had three periods of recording. One was for a label called PolyGram, which later became Universal. That was a certain era of recording, and there was a lot of [sonic] separation. There was an aesthetic of a certain sound—everyone was so proud of the highs and the crispness—and everything was super thin and sharp. It was not favoring the most organic, acoustic vibe.
Later, I founded my own label, in 2001, which is called Material Records. On this label, I've done about 45 records. Some are mine, but also from other people. That was another era of recording for me, where I could do whatever I wanted. I didn't have to ask anybody what I should record, but, at the same time, I also ran into restrictions.
What sorts of restrictions?
In order to really place a record in the world, it needs more than a good recording. It needs a network and a plan behind it, and people who will distribute it and promote it. I didn't have that with my record label, so those were years where I made a lot of records but they were not that much noticed. Then I got to ECM, which was the label that influenced me most when I was young. When I was getting into jazz, my heroes were on ECM. This is the last period, so to speak, with ECM.
How would you describe your experience recording for ECM?
ECM has a very conscious approach to sound and recording. It's an aesthetic where the natural flow of the improvisation of the musicians is captured as well as possible. It is about the moment—to catch the moment of the jazz musicians' conversation. It is not about editing or creating layers of tracks. It's like a very well-recorded live concert. That's due to the character and taste of Manfred Eicher, who built the label.There is some editing possible, but not with single instruments. You can edit a whole section away of everybody, but you can't go in and change a note, because it is recorded without separation, and everything bleeds into each other. It isn't only the technical aspects of it, but it is another attitude as well. It's like in a concert. It counts from the first note to the last, and that is a nice vibe. Also, the people I have been playing with on the last five records, which are on ECM, this is what they do. This is their game—what they're good at. Sometimes one take doesn't work, so you do another one, maybe with a different approach, but you don't splice together an album. That is not a bad thing in itself, by the way. There are some heavily edited records that I love. But it is not the way ECM does it.
Meet the future of learning.
We should never ignore the terrible costs of the COVID-19 pandemic to people’s lives and livelihoods, but for this column, I’ll be looking at it as a crisis the way we look back at the mortgage crisis, which gripped the country a little over a decade ago. It’s true the cause of that crisis was completely different and that it played out much more slowly. Despite their dramatic differences, however, these two most recent shake-ups have proved to have a lot in common.
The obvious similarities are that both caused lots of unemployment, both had a negative impact on peoples’ net worth, and both saw the word “unprecedented” used an unprecedented number of times. But another similarity that doesn’t show up on news feeds is that both the mortgage crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a lot more people playing guitar, and playing music in general.
While the pandemic has had devastating consequences for performers of all kinds who rely on a live audience, its impact on those who play primarily for their own enjoyment has been mostly positive. As during the mortgage crisis, there has been a significant uptick in the number of people interested in learning to play guitar, as well as people learning to play a different instrument or a different style. Of course, part of the reason is that so many people are stuck at home during shelter-in-place orders, but we saw a similar increase in playing guitar at home—as opposed to just listening to guitar music—during the mortgage crisis. And the only restriction on mobility during the mortgage crisis was a person’s lack of funds.
What is it about playing music that makes it so much more compelling when we are under threat? Part of the appeal is that music is obviously comforting and familiar, but playing music also gives the player a much-needed sense of control, much like baking bread or starting an herb garden. A decade ago, we couldn’t get our job back or make our home worth as much as it had been in 2007, and this year, we can’t go to a long-awaited festival or even go to our favorite restaurant or bar. But when we open the guitar case, the only restrictions are from within. We are the ones who determine what songs we can’t play, or how well we play the ones we already know. And these are things only we can change. Taking charge of your tune list or how you play a solo may not seem like much, but when you are facing restrictions and diminishment every way you turn, adding new songs and licks to your musical bag of tricks gives the “music sets you free” cliché a potent new meaning.
Despite the difference in health danger between the financial crisis and this pandemic, the biggest change for your local music store is how people satisfy the urge to learn new songs and styles. A decade ago, increased demand for lessons gave many guitar instructors their first experience with a waiting list of potential students. At the music store where I work, students coming to take their lessons were about the only customers we saw walk through our door when banks were going under and the stock market was plummeting. (The exceptions were people wanting to sell the “extra” guitars they’d acquired during the good times.) But compared to the mortgage crisis, how we learn music is where this pandemic has forced us to take a very different path.
The game-changer of recent months is the explosion in virtual music lessons. And this change will last longer than finding a cure for COVID-19. In fact, it’s going to change how people learn a lot of things for a long time. It’s not that Zoom lessons or YouTube tutorials are the result of shelter-in-place orders: The technology for digital lessons has been widely used for years. But now that face-to-face guitar lessons are no longer an option, the question is if they’ll ever return. Will people sit shoulder to shoulder and clanging headstocks with other pickers in a stuffy room to take a workshop from their hero? Or … will they opt for a Zoom lesson?
One advantage—and I think it’s a huge one—is that when taking a virtual workshop, fellow students won’t know you are a relative beginner. This means beginners will take more advanced workshops, and advanced instructors will get even the most shy students. Everybody wins! Given the technology already available, won’t split screens for both teacher and student become common for private lessons? For a virtual lesson, you might be seated at your kitchen table and your instructor might be in his basement, but the virtual reality you both enjoy onscreen is that you’re seated across from one another in a spacious rehearsal studio. Will either instructor or student really want to return to a cramped lesson room in the back of a noisy music store? Only time will tell.