february 2009

Designed by Klaus Voorman (Beatles Revolver cover) and sporting eight strings, the Vootar is unlike any we''ve ever seen.

Last month we displayed our love and admiration for double-neck guitars… er, harps. This month we scale things back and return to a single-neck instrument but keep peculiarity at a high. While the Cassandra Elk Designs Vootar does have only one neck, it’s far from ordinary. The Vootar is half bass, half guitar and all German design and craftsmanship. It’s a combination of famed artist, musician and producer Klaus Voorman’s eye for design (he also designed the Beatles’ Revolver cover) and luthier Stuart Malcolm Bilcock’s ability to transform Voorman’s idea from pen and paper to bass and guitar.

The Vootar comes loaded with eight strings (top four are bass and bottom four are guitar), six pickups and two stereo inputs, so you can play bass and guitar at the same time. The front pickup responds to all eight strings. The middle and rear pickups separate the two sets of instrument strings so they can be activated with mini-switches in three different positions. All the pickups except the neck are custom-made and handwound by Harry Häusel of Häusel Pickups, and the guitar features custom-made ETS single bridges. The neck and body are made of Brazilian cedar.

By using a stereo output, you can play the Vootar through a guitar and bass amp separately. “This instrument is particularly useful for when you play in a small band,” says Klaus Voorman. “You can accompany the guitarist with bass and rhythm guitar whilst the drummer is freaking out.” There are currently only three Vootars in existence: one is owned by Klaus Voorman, another by Sir Paul McCartney, and the third (shown here) is at Redbone Guitar Boutique in San Antonio, TX.

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Cicognani Brutus Live offers unique tones from Italy

Cicognani Brutus Live Head & Cab
Download Example 1
Channel 1 Clean
Download Example 2
Channel 1 Crunch
Download Example 3
Channel 2 Lead 1
Download Example 4
Channel 2 Lead 2
All clips were recorded with a ‘74 stock Les Paul Custom and a Shure SM-7 close in on the cone of the left speaker about 1 inch from the grill. A very small amount of reverb was added using Altiverb 6 in Pro Tools. No compresson or EQ.
There’s a first time for everything in life. In this particular case it’s the first time I’ve ever come across an amp with a “sexy” switch on it! This was just one of the unique quirks that stood out on the Brutus Live head and matching 2×12 cab I had the pleasure to check out this time around. Guglielmo Cicognani is a renowned Italian amp designer who teamed up with session guitarist/instructor/performer Donato Begotti to create a signature line of amps and cabs suitable for both stage and studio, resulting in the Brutus series.

Sporting a look similar to THD’s line of amp heads but in a black and orange color scheme, the Brutus Live head is a compact (15″×9″×7″) unit that offers 28 watts of Class A power through two 5881 power tubes. For tube-swapping junkies it also includes auto biasing for 6L6GC, EL34, 6CA7, KT66, 6550 and KT88. It comes standard with an effects loop that can be switched between series and parallel, and a direct/slave out labeled “Jolly” for driving a separate power amp. You’ve gotta love those naming conventions. On the front panel there is a single input, Bass, Middle and Treble controls, a 3-way switch labeled “T…Z” for Presence, separate Channel 1 and 2 controls for Gain and Volume, each with its own switch for Clean/Crunch/Sexy (Ch. 1) and Lead1/Lead2 (Ch. 2). Wrapping up the funky naming conventions are a standby switch labeled “Waiting/Playing” and a backlit rocker power switch labeled “Holiday/Rocking!”

The companion 2×12 DP birch ply cab houses two Jensen C12K2 speakers capable of handling up to 120 watts in mono mode. Two jacks on the back allow for mono 8-ohm and stereo 16-ohm inputs. The cab is covered in a sleek, black leather-like Tolex material with a black metal grill that is affixed to the front by nine screws. A nice bonus is the extractable microphone support system that can be used in place of a standard mic stand for convenient placement in a live or recording situation.

In Play
The mark of a good amp is that it allows the true characteristics of a guitar to come through. The best examples of amps don’t mask but enhance the things we love about our favorite instrument, and inspire us to play and create new music. With the Brutus it was clear that the amp has a voice—many of them in fact—but it also allowed every guitar I played through it to stand up and proudly display its unique characteristics.

Plugging in a Les Paul and setting the Brutus to Channel 1 in the “crunch” position with the gain at 3 o’clock and the volume around noon instantly brought out a perfect Foo Fighters rhythm tone: tight, crunchy and focused. Having a very active set of tone controls allowed for easy dialing in of more body via the midrange knob and a thick bottom that never flubbed out the Jensen speakers.

Flicking the “T…Z” switch to all three positions focused the presence center from low to high. In the far left position the presence felt both dark and bright if that’s even possible, while the middle position (W?) it brightened up and began showing some teeth. All the way to the right it brought a crispy fried bacon tone to the foreground, which could best be described as “Sizzlean!”

Over time, I found myself drawn back to the left position for that dark/bright combo with the Les Paul. Switching the sound switch (clean/crunch/sexy) to the clean setting and bringing the volume up to full opened up a whole range of cleans that went from dark and buttery to swampy and thin, depending on the guitar plugged in. I spent a good deal of time here chewing on the variety and really enjoying the amp’s ability to meld nicely to the accompanying guitar. The last setting on Channel 1 was the “sexy” setting. Switching over, I noticed a volume drop from the crunch setting which was a bit unexpected, considering where it was placed in the throw of the switch. However, this setting is meant to have a more compressed tone suitable for singing sustain without overly saturating the tone. The “sexy” tone isn’t necessarily what I’d call sexy, but it does in fact do what it set out to accomplish. It was clear that the sound became more compressed and extended out the decay of notes to allow for longer-held lines with a rounder front-end attack. Butter? No. Margarine? Perhaps!

Brutus Live detail

During the time I spent playing through the amp, it became clear to me that this amp really loves single coil pickups on Channel 2. With a 2008 Fender Strat plugged in there was more than enough saturation and sustain in the “Lead 1” position to stand up to most amps in the high gain category. Again, the tone of the Strat really came through and the Brutus highlighted the beauty and sweetness of the single coils, offering a snap and swirl that can only be appreciated by playing this amp live. Switching over to “Lead 2” stepped things up considerably and offered a thickening and slight buzziness to the sound that reminded me of a higher gain setting on a Mesa Dual Rectifier. Channel 2 is much more aggressive and tends to erase some of the personality of the guitar due to the higher gain settings, which is a tradeoff that may or may not appeal to some players. It just depends on what your purpose is with the amp. The fact that you have Channel 2 as an option to footswitch over to is more than a bonus, considering Channel 1 has options that rival most two-channel amps in the first place.

Overall, the Brutus delivers a very wide range of tones from beautiful cleans to aggressive distortion. The width of coverage from the three tone knobs yielded much more control over the voice shaping than any vintage Marshall or Fender could boast, while still being usable in just about every setting, depending on the guitar. The bonus of having mini-switches to change the voicing of each of the channels really adds a lot of versatility to the sound as well. One thing that came back no matter what guitar I played through it was the tightness in the feel of the amp. This is not an amp with a lot of sag to it, which limited me to playing a little more on the safe side than I’d like.

That said, I checked out Donato Begotti’s MySpace page (myspace.com/donatobegotti), and if he is using the Brutus, which it sounds like to me, he is clearly more than able to pull off masterful chops regardless of the type of feel this amp has. Cicognani has certainly put together a unique and very usable amp setup with the Brutus Live head and 2×12 cab. In any studio or live situation it will deliver a cool new color to your tonal palate.

After the review had been printed, I brought the head over to my tech’s place and played it through our trusty eighties Marshall 4x12 with Celestion Greenbacks. DANG! It really sounded killer and extremely Marshall-like on the crunch channel. Played it for an hour at least, right after we had played my JCM 800 and 75 Superlead. It was very cool.
Buy if...
You want a portable yet powerful and unique sounding amp perfect for recording or live use.
Skip if...
You like a lot of sag in your lead tone.

Head Street $1699 Cab Street $524.99 - Cicognani - cicognaniamps.com

Advice on getting the big gig

So you’ve received the rare audition call for a band or artist that is actually recording and touring. COOL! Whether they’re well known or preparing for their first album tour, the same amount of preparation is necessary. I’m asked quite often about this subject, so here are my suggestions, drawn either from personal experience or that of others. Obviously, I’ll be speaking from a guitarist’s perspective, but the same applies to any gig, really.

1. Do your homework. If it’s a famous artist, you may get the call from their management or from the artists themselves (Don Henley called me… slight choke.) If the latter, be careful not to be a goober or a “fan.” If that’s the first impression you make, the next call may be from the management saying, “Thanks, but they’ve found their guy.” Feel free to ask the questions you need to prepare properly and get a feel for what they’re looking for, but don’t be over the top. If you’re dealing with the MD (Music Director), you should find it much easier to cull necessary pointers and ask questions about the artist. You can research a lot on your own. Buy all available CDs (they may offer to send them to you, but don’t expect it). View any live DVDs they may have; this is the best way to get an idea of what they may be looking for and how to play the songs. Hit YouTube for any live footage or interviews, read any press or interviews on the internet. Do you have any acquaintances who are personally friendly with the band or artist? Find out everything you can about them. Know who (and what) you’re dealing with going in.

2. Try to schedule your audition to allow as much time as possible to prepare. If they must have you in the next day, plan on staying up all night! I previously made the mistake of scheduling an important audition (Don again) that required learning nine songs with only two days to prepare. I survived on catnaps and eating meals standing with a guitar around my neck.

3. Unless you absolutely know the gig calls for free-form playing and improvising, don’t. No wanking! More likely, the artist prefers their songs to be played exactly as recorded, or at least starting from there. It’s always best to learn the material verbatim, right down to the tones.

4. Practice the songs by playing along to the CDs. They’ll probably ask you to work up four to six tunes, maybe more. Make the songs and parts come to you as second nature. Then, learn more of their material they may not have asked for. You’ll seriously impress them if the audition is going really well and they want to keep playing.

5. It might help to make lead sheets for each song (printed on a computer, big and bold) with simple arrangements, the key (tuning or capo?), which guitar or instrument to use, and any notes on pedal or amp settings. Anything to take the technical thinking out of the picture so you can concentrate on just playing your best. You’ll be surprised what you’ll forget under pressure.

6. Keep your audition rig as simple as possible, but with everything you need to get the job done. If you can keep it down to a few guitars, a simple pedalboard and one amp, great. Or a couple of smaller amps if you’re doing an A/B rig. Don’t come in with a rack of fifteen guitars, a wall of amps and a crew hauling your roadcases. They won’t be impressed.

7. Don’t play too loud. If anything, make them ask you to turn up. Try to balance your volume against the drummer or the other players. If you’re a drummer, gauge how loud you play around the singer (if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid the dreaded plexiglass!) and the rest of the band should then hopefully set their volume around you. Or at least the singer will tell the rest of the band to turn down!

8. And finally, act like you own the gig. Not cocky, but displaying total confidence, with your head up. No shoe gazing or uncertainty. Be a good hang, but be aware if they’re on a time frame. Make your lasting impression and get outta there.

After the audition, when you’ve left the building and your heart rate settles down to normal, it’s then down to fate and circumstance— especially if they’re auditioning a ton of players. Don’t take it personally if you don’t get the gig. There are many factors involved, but mainly the artist is just looking for that unspoken “fit”—a mix of playing ability, feel with the band, sound and personality. If you’re understanding when they call to say you didn’t get the gig (always an uncomfortable call for anyone to make), they’ll be way more likely to refer you to someone else. It’s a small community out there. Most artists, bands and management look for cool personalities, exceptional or unique players and “low maintenance,” meaning you don’t whine or expect “star” treatment. But if you get the gig… Then hats off to ya!

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