november 2011

With the Whammy DT, Digitech builds on the simplistic, rugged design of the original while rearranging the control set a bit.

My first encounter with the DigiTech Whammy pedal was while listening to Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven album. With pitch bends flying every which way over the limit of guitar string tension it was clear that there was something more than Dimebag’s virtuosity was at work. And as bands from Radiohead and The Smashing Pumpkins embraced the effect in wildly varying ways, the effect became a huge success.

The original Ferrari red WH-1 was hard to miss on a pedalboard—with an expression pedal on the left and controls for Harmony, Detune, and Whammy effects on the right of the unit. Later versions added wah, auto-wah, and bass whammy, though the original remains highly sought-after for its straightforward simplicity. With the Whammy DT, DigiTech builds on the simplistic, rugged design of the original while rearranging the control set a bit. More importantly, it adds several controls and capabilities that enhance versatility, including expanded tuning capabilities and improved pitch tracking.

Read MoreShow less

Brad Paisley knows a thing or two about writing hooks for general music fans while still throwing in enough guitar pyrotechnics to keep his guitar-playing audience happy, if not slightly stunned.

Diary of a Player
Brad Paisley and David Wild
Howard Books

Brad Paisley knows a thing or two about writing hooks for general music fans while still throwing in enough guitar pyrotechnics to keep his guitar-playing audience happy, if not slightly stunned. He applies that same formula to Diary of a Player, a book he’s described as a “love letter to the guitar.”

Paisley is sometimes described as the wunderkind who crashed into country music with more than enough talent to spare, but that’s not the way he sees it. Sure, the passion was there, but so was the practice. Using the superhero universe as a metaphor, Paisley describes himself as Batman—a character with no particular birthright for the cause, who is also human, flawed, and actually lacks the kind of power that guarantees other superheroes of keeping their jobs.

Paisley’s history as a player would make a good Disney movie. He started with a Silvertone electric. He admired his grandfather, who was a pretty good picker, but regrets showing off in what he now realizes was the moment they both knew he was a better player. He felt the need to stop playing for an entire summer. He went from playing a church picnic to playing any gig he could find, which included nursing homes and fire-station Christmas parties. He worked hard to keep audiences interested, even resorting to playing the theme from Sesame Street or “The Hokey Pokey” if the situation called for it. He struggled with the decision of whether or not to perform his own material once he started playing bigger stages. He opened for other acts for years and once was even doused with beer while standing too close to a frustrated Vern Gosdin who was having issues with his monitors. Paisley even auditioned for a gig at Opryland and had a deer-in-the-headlights moment when they said, “Show us you can dance.” He did the moonwalk.

Paisley got G.A.S. at an early age, like the rest of us, so it’s interesting to read his recollection of gear acquisitions. After the Silvertone, he got a Gremlin acoustic before moving up to a Hondo Strat copy and then a Tokai Strat copy. He refers to his first vintage AC30 purchase, a direct order from a music store in England, as “The Great Vox Amp Crisis of 1987.” He had to make several trips to the hardware store to get it configured for US power and to replace blown fuses. Regardless, Paisley says that was the moment “I had discovered my sound. My tone.”

Paisley’s Diary of a Player lacks the addiction battles and contract scam stories that usually characterize books penned by famous guitarists. Paisley hasn’t misstepped and has no axes to grind, which leaves more room for tales about playing with John Jorgenson, hanging out with Little Jimmy Dickens, and sneaking into the recording studio at Belmont and literally playing all night.

Paisley never dwells on amp settings or Blues Driver mods, but there’s certainly enough guitar-specific insight to set this book apart from your typical rock star-penned musings. The 39-year-old country star has accomplished a lot in a short time, but he’s most proud of being a player, which is what this book explains.

Flashy and loud, brimming with sex appeal, and plenty of geeky, mechanical specs to discuss—instruments and vehicles share many of the same characteristics.

The link between guitars and cars has been discussed often. Who among us doesn’t love swoopy sports cars, sick bobber bikes, or wicked hot rods? Flashy and loud, brimming with sex appeal, and plenty of geeky, mechanical specs to discuss—instruments and vehicles share many of the same characteristics. I’ve spent countless weekends at custom car shows or concours and vintage races while ogling fine machinery. Not surprisingly, I find that parallels exist right down to the way we personalize and modify our toys, as well as the attitudes about doing so.

In the automotive world, performance is what it’s all about. Pumping up the intake pressure with turbos and superchargers to gain horsepower (can you say preamp?), or tuning an exhaust (choosing the right speaker cab) is just the beginning. We like to have controls in easy reach to negotiate tricky twists or turns, and pedals underfoot to jam on the brakes or power through straight passages. As you can see, I’m already letting my worlds collide.

Today, performance mods aren’t considered radical, but almost a right. Everyone wants an edge over the competition, or maybe a little push over the cliff to get one’s creative juices flowing. The game was on when big-band guitarists started stuffing phonograph needles into their guitars. Performance was what Randy Smith had in mind when he created cascading preamp sections for the first Boogies. It’s what Jeff Beck (coincidentally an automobile hot-rodder himself) sought when he removed the covers from his Les Paul humbuckers to get a sonic leg up. Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs heaped extra pickups onto their semi-hollowbodies back in the heyday of Haight-Ashbury. Not to be outdone, Quicksilver’s John Cipollina wove a dozen amps, cabinets, and controls together for his signature sound. A decade later, Edward Van Halen jammed a naked humbucker into his striped, hot-rodded guitar to get the sound he couldn’t buy off-the-shelf. Like dropping a hemi into a ’32 Ford, the replacement pickup is the musical equivalent of a motor transplant—the staple of a hot-rodder’s vernacular.

Playing at your best requires you to be at ease with your instrument. The notes must fall beneath your fingers without difficulty. Similarly, rodders often modify vehicles to provide a pleasing or responsive ride. Even at the beginning of the electric guitar era, the lines were blurred between disciplines. Soon after the whammy bar was invented, Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender began to make tweaks to the design. Bigsby, a motorcycle fabricator himself, created elaborate, raw aluminum tremolo arms reminiscent of his Crocker motorcycle shifters. To improve comfort and fit, Fender curved and scalloped the bodies of the Stratocaster and Jazzmaster until they flowed like the long hoods of European racing cars. Indeed, one such 1960s design was named Jaguar and another, the Mustang, was adorned with racing stripes. Clearly, the pioneers of American electrics understood the relationship between guitars and cars.

Personalization of material property is as old as creation, so why should instruments be immune? From the simple act of applying a sticker to elaborate inlays, engraving, or airbrushing graphics—guitars mimic vehicles in every way. Musicians see themselves as individual snowflakes and there’s no better way to prove it— except playing—than accessorizing guitars. Like jewelry for your axe, there are countless hardware choices. Functional or merely cosmetic, the simple act of replacing a guitar’s knobs, pickguard, or tuners can be a statement of identity similar to aftermarket wheels on a pimped ride.

Some would argue that it’s sacrilege to corrupt a design from its stock configuration. This is a debate that can be heard at car shows as well as vintage guitar festivals. In 1988, for example, a 1973 Porsche 911 was merely a 15-year-old, used, foreign sports car. Then the Miami Vice crowd tore them apart and rebuilt them with bigger motors, sloped noses, fat fender-flares, and giant whale-tail spoilers. Rolling on their ultra-wide, gold-colored wheels, these modified icons of ’80s style can now be had for the cost of an entry-level Toyota. In contrast, had such an example been left in its original form, it could be worth four times that amount—or more.

Similarly, it was common in the ’70s to strip the finish off guitars for a more “natural” appearance. I recall using Zip-Strip to remove the olympic white finish from my early ’60s J bass, reckoning the bare lumber would better complement my band’s earthy vibe. I was personalizing my axe—which was just a $300 used instrument at the time— and the practice was consistent with the trend of the day. I was oblivious to the fact that in both the automotive and instrument world, a time-worn original is worth much more than a restored repaint—even with original parts intact. That Zip-Strip melted thousands of dollars off the J’s future value, but at the time, I was happy in my ignorance.

The choice to modify any possession to make it more distinctive is a personal decision. There are those who have no use for an original 1932 Ford, but would cherish a chopped and channeled rat-rodded version. In turn, a 1956 Strat without a Floyd Rose might be useless to a metal guitarist. Is performance or vanity in the here-and-now more or less important than an uncertain future value? If I had it to do over again, would I have left my bass white?

Read MoreShow less