The ferocious guitarist—and singer-songwriter and bandleader—has a brand new rig for 2023. Check it out!
Two months ago, Lindsay Ell released her latest single, “Sweet Spot,” plus she’s on the way to issuing a new album, following up 2020’s Heart Theory. And for the tour leading into her next record, she’s also got a passel of updated gear since her 2018 Rig Rundown. No surprise, since there’s always something new happening with Ell—whether it’s touring under her own banner or with Shania Twain, scooping up Canadian Country Music Association awards, or serving as a judge on Canada’s Got Talent.
When it comes to guitars, Ell’s 6-string tastes run to the classics and custom-builds, and she’s got her signature OD aboard, so let’s take a look.
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Play Mary Kaye
“I’m a Strat girl,” Lindsay Ell attests. And this one, a Fender Custom Shop ’56 Strat in aged shell pink, was a gift from Keith Urban. It’s got jumbo frets and has become a studio and road favorite.
On her last Rig Rundown, Lindsay was touring with several Strats that she had handpainted. This tour, she’s continuing the tradition with this funky-beautiful Fender Standard Strat she calls “Just Another Girl.” Note the humbucker-and-two-single-coils combination, and, of course, the stitched-up heart.
Paint It, Blue
The backside of Ell's Fender Standard Strat that wears the title of popular track from her 2017 album, The Project.
Ell was asked by John Mayer to play in the video that announced the release of his PRS SE Silver Sky, the lower-priced version of his signature Paul Reed Smith model. This is the guitar she played in that video.
This vintage, all-stock Gibson Melody Maker from the 1960s was also a gift from Keith Urban—a thank you for opening dates on his spring 2023 tour.
This Fender Ultra Strat, in an aged ash natural finish, is currently Lindsay’s main go-to onstage. This hot rod is outfitted with Fender’s noiseless single-coil pickups. Elle’s guitars are strung with a variety of sets, including green DR Strings (.010–.048s0, Stringjoys (.095–.048), and D’Addario .010–.052s and .011–.052s. Her picks are D’Addario heavies.
Ell’s main acoustic is a custom-built Rockbridge OOO made of mahogany by Brian Calhoun in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s a major switch for this longtime Martin player.
Ell plays through a pair of amps: a Vox AC30 head and a Ceriatone Overtone Special. That’s a Furman power conditioner beneath the pair of heads.
The AC30 hits a 2x12 with Celestion Greenbacks and the Ceriatone slams a 1x12 Dr. Z cab with a Celestion Gold speaker.
Lindsay Ell's Pedalboard
Lindsay’s pedalboard contains a PolyTune 3 Noir, a Wampler Ego Compressor, a Ceriatone Centura Professional Overdrive, a signature Siren Etana drive, Vertex Ultraphonix OD, an MU-FX Micro-Tron III filter, an Arion Stereo Chorus, a Providence Chrono Delay, a HardWire RV-7 Stereo Reverb, and a Strymon Zuma power supply.
Dabbling with Digital
In addition to her trad tube amp-and-pedalboard combo, Lindsay also has a Neural DSP Quad Cortex on tap that has modeled tones of her amps.
Two combos are slimmed down for air travel, but beefy enough for a global musical adventurer. And for the ngoni.
Everybody knows it's easy to get a clean, full tone from a Fender Blues Junior and a Strat, but what about a ngoni? That's the 6-stringed Malian instrument that guitarist and singer Leni Stern has adopted as her third core voice. With three plucked and three resonating strings, and a wood, calabash, and animal-skin construction, it seems like a potential nightmare to amplify. But … with the right pickup and her little workhorse combo, she's got it dialed in both live and on her new album Dance—bright and punchy, with just the right touch of air, and a propulsive, fat snap that reveals the ngoni's role in inspiring the banjo while sounding, quite rightfully, from an older, nearly timeless place.
Here's Stern's road-warrior Blues Junior, which has a neodymium Jensen Tornado replacement speaker.
The key, says Stern, was installing a pickup by Carlos Juan, who designed the magnetic wonders that Pat Metheny uses to amplify his Linda Manzer-built 42-string Pikasso. It was given to her by classical guitarist Derek Gripper, and once it replaced the contact pickup she'd been using, the ngoni truly came to electrified life. (See this story online to watch her play the ngoni onstage.)
"On tours, I like to bring my own amp, so I had to reduce the weight of the Blues Junior with a flight case so they would come in at 50 pounds exactly."
"It sounds really well-balanced and has very low feedback, with my Blues Junior, Super Champ, or Matchless," Stern says, bringing up the trio of 15-watt amps that are the stars of this month's column. Stern has had some changes made to all of them—adding a neodymium speaker to the Junior, her most frequent traveling companion, and chop-shopping the Matchless Lightning 15 so its head is removable, significantly reducing the stock weight. The Fender Super Champ's original 10" speaker has been replaced with a 12"—an easy and common mod that gives the little bugger a significantly heftier voice.
While it looks like a first-generation Matchless Lightning 15, the head and cab of Stern's amp have been modded so the head can be lifted out and used independently.
Big, often pastel tones—mostly from Teles and Strats (a '59 hardtail Stratocaster is one of her most-prized guitars)—are among Stern's signatures. And while the Super Champ mostly stays home, the Junior and Lightning do globe trot—just like her music, which is a highly evolved mix of ethnically rooted sounds that Stern traces back to the eclectic internationalist musical tastes of her father and the pancultural sensibility she experienced growing up in Germany, which she then fanned to conflagrance via her own miles-deep jones for learning and exploring. West African music is a particular passion and provides much of Dance's backbone.
Leni Stern Trio at Iridium - 11/2012 - Like a Thief
"On tours, I like to bring my own amp, so I had to reduce the weight of the Blues Junior with a flight case so they would come in at 50 pounds exactly," she explains. The weight of the Junior is now 23 pounds, verses its out-of-the-factory 31. For the Matchless, it wasn't as simple as a speaker replacement. The company seamlessly modded the 1x12 combo so the head can be nestled in the cab or travel separately. Both are run through a pedalboard, and while the Matchless has no reverb and requires a stompbox, the Junior has the company's classic spring reverb. The tube array is three 12AX7s for the Junior's preamp stage and two EL84 power tubes, with 3-band EQ plus master and volume dials, and a fat-boost switch she often uses. Her favorite source of overdrive, though, is a Free the Tone Heat Blaster, which lends the kind of smooth, creamy power-tone that she shares with her husband, Mike Stern. (Watching them perform together is as much fun as seeing a pair of otters at play.) The Matchless Lightning, by the way, also has three 12AX7s, one EL84 power tube, and volume and master dials with 2-band EQ.
And here's the (mostly) homebody: a Fender Super Champ with a 12" Celestion TN120.
It becomes obvious in conversation that the Junior is her favorite. She speaks of it as warmly as the amp itself speaks. "I've had three over the past 13 years, because it has a circuit board and those get damaged in all the travel, which doesn't happen with point-to-point-wired amps like the Matchless," she notes. "But the Junior is very versatile, with tones that have the lightness and sweetness of a Princeton, but they're stronger and louder. I use the overdrive function a lot. It gets me a little into Boogie territory."
To misquote John Lennon, happiness is a warm tone, but Stern does have one regret regarding amps. "I'm still a little mad at myself for not buying a Dumble 25 years ago when Robben Ford told me I should," she says. "At the time, they were just becoming popular, but a Blues Junior only cost $300 or something like that. I thought paying $3,000 for an amp was ridiculous." She laughs.
Leni Stern: Kono (Bird)
Fiery Hiwatts (literally), an aluminum bari, and a common drive forge the tonal backbone for the Norwegian Grammy-winning metal mystic brewing sounds somewhere between Melvins' metallic chug, Neurosis' pulsing grind, and Swans' celestial moods.
In this episode, founding Norwegian metal visionary Kjetil Nernes details why he switched to a tuned-up, Electrical Guitar Company baritone, why he runs more Hiwatts than Pete at Leeds (and how they've caught fire … multiple times), and explains how a big-box-store drive sharpens his massive tone.
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Custom Electrical Guitar Company Baritone
Årabrot artistic leader Kjetil Nernes owns several custom Electrical Guitar Company instruments, but the one he's been using the most currently is EGC's baritone model. He tunes it to drop C and says the bari mixes well with bandmate Karin Park's Moog bass analog synth. He employs a custom set of Black Harbor strings (.012–.060).
Kjetil Nernes' Pedalboard
"I actually have a pedalboard these days, which is remarkable for a guitar player like me," says Nernes. "For years, I was only using the Fulltone OCD and it's became the backbone of Årabrot's sound."
He still prefers the OCD for its "sharpening" touch to his metallic EGC tones. The Electro-Harmonix POG2 hits his Hiwatt (Custom 200 DR201 bass amps) for an added signal boost. (As you can see, he's dialed out most of the octave effect.) His second Electro-Harmonix stomp is the Superego, but it's used simply as a glorified synth-y reverb to cover material on 2021's Norwegian Gothic. Heavier, chunkier, repulsive gain happens when the Hudson Electronics Broadcast runs into the Fulltone OCD. And while it wasn't plugged in for the Rundown, Nernes enjoys getting filthy with the Gamechanger Audio Plasma Pedal. Everything is powered by the Strymon Ojai.
Using more Hiwatts than Pete at Leeds, Nernes blends vintage guitar heads with modern bass pillars. The guitar stacks on the left are comprised of two 1970s Hiwatt models—a DR112 Custom Built PA 100 head (left) and a venerable Custom 100 DR103. Both heads run through their own pair of Hiwatt 4x12 cabinets: one is loaded with Celestions and the other with Fanes. Nernes likes the blend of speakers with the guitar heads because he feels the Celestions add a current complement to his monstrous roar. The right half of the British-voiced battalion features Hiwatt Custom 200 DR201 (KT88) heads matched with Hiwatt SE115410F cabinets loaded with four 10" and one 15" Fane Sovereign speakers.