Not your dad’s tremolo—or anyone else’s.
Unique distortion/modulation effects.
Tricky to use. Tones may get tiring. Poor documentation.
Ease of Use:
Nunomo calls its Grain a tremolo pedal. It is, in the sense that it modulates the amplitude (volume) of your signal. But the sonic results aren’t like anything you might expect from a conventional trem effect.
Here, the modulating signal is a fast square wave. This is hard, on/off modulation at rates that begin where most trem effects max out. Grain doesn’t do slow, throbbing sounds. Instead, the speedy modulation generates a unique distortion timbre. “The original idea,” says Nunomo, “came from how a human shouts. In rock or metal songs, people shout like ‘goaaaahhh!’”
A Fast Flicker
This sonic stroboscopic flicker reminds me of the throaty, trilling sound Spanish speakers produce when properly pronouncing double-r words like torre and borracho. Since Nunomo creates the effect by nixing portions of waveform cycles, the modulation rate varies according to pitch and modulates faster at higher pitches. If, say, you bend a note, you can hear the rate change as you stretch and release the string. I suppose it sounds something like a heavy metal singer shouting “burrrrrrrr-ito!”
The pedal also includes gain and volume controls capable of overdriving an amp on their own. But, as Nunomo points out, the Grain sounds most dramatic when placed after a separate distortion or fuzz pedal. (I used a Tone Bender MkII clone for the demo clip.) The Grain doesn’t change your fuzz pedal’s innate timbre. It just sort of flutters it.
Meanwhile, the process also generates sub-tones between two and four octaves below the pitch you play. Many settings are reminiscent of the old MXR Blue Box effect heard on Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain.” Like a Blue Box, the Grain is clearest when playing above the 12th fret. Below that, the sub-octaves become indistinguishable. Anything other than single notes (and sometimes fifths) sounds pretty sloppy. But hey—depending on how much noise you like in your rock, “indistinguishable” and “sloppy” might suit your style and tastes.
Mix and Match
The Grain’s additional controls let you vary the pedal’s core timbre. A trio of knobs activates the effect—each one generating sub-tones in a different octave. A 3-position transition toggle controls the intensity (i.e., the choppiness) of the effect. There’s also a much-needed mix knob to blend straight and effected signal. A little effect goes a long way here.
In fact, at aggressive mix levels I find the Grain’s tones fatiguing. But having said that, the effect could be deployed to good use in small doses. For example, fluttering the last phrase of a solo heading into a chorus might lend the perfect touch of drama and eccentricity. The Grain is ready for such applications: a second mini-toggle activates a momentary mode, wherein the effect is only applied while holding down a foot switch.
Dialing It In
I initially found the Grain difficult to use. Even with the one-page manual, I simply couldn’t get it to produce modulation effects, though the gain controls worked as expected. We contacted the manufacturer and Nunomo responded with a diagram depicting a starting position for the knobs—one that doesn’t appear in the manual. It turns out the three depth control knobs aren’t exactly depth controls. They’re more like trimpots that provide one ideal setting, as opposed to a range of usable ones. In other words, they do nothing useful across most of their range.
The same is true of the wet/dry mix pot. Fully counterclockwise, it outputs an effect-only signal. With the knob raised to around 10 o’clock, you get maximum dry. Nothing else happens in the upper two-thirds of the knob’s range.
The Grain is solidly made, with a tidy circuit board and enclosure-mounted pots and jacks. The pedal lives in a standard BB-sized box and runs on the usual 9V power supplies. There is no battery compartment.
Listen to the accompanying demo clip and to others online. (All feature similar sounds.) Do you think these tones could find a place in your toolbox? Well, that’s your verdict. To my ear, the Grain’s effects could be effective in short bursts. Your aesthetics may differ. I didn’t dig the fact that four of the six knobs only do useful things in a fraction of their range, or that the one-page manual failed to get me up and running without frustration. Again, your mileage may vary.
Watch the Review Demo:
It’s a good thing to fix a crack on your guitar, but don’t let your tone suffer in the process by going overboard with the repair.
In my last column [“Just Say No To Cracks,” June 2018], we talked about cracks and why they happen. We also took a close look at what to consider during a crack repair and at the continued care of the instrument to ensure it doesn’t happen again. We now need to ponder interior support, backers, or cleats, which may be the third leg of the trifecta to better predict the outcome of a repair’s longevity and the effect it could have on an instrument’s tone.
How to deem a repair complete is debatable. For example, some may say a repair is not complete until the finish has some degree of touch-up performed. Closer to the truth is that once a crack is repaired to the level it’s stable—and is going to stay that way—it’s complete. Anything else is in support of that. So, the question is if it’s going to stay that way.
When a crack stays open for too long, it can develop a “memory,” so to speak. This is what I like to call “gaposis.” In such an instance, the repair may require a little extra help to stabilize the damage, and the repairperson may opt to use cleats or backers, especially if the damage seems questionable enough that the wood won’t remain stable over the long haul.
A cleat is a small, thin piece of wood that’s commonly made of the same wood as what’s being repaired. The grain of the cleat runs opposite of the area being glued, which helps “stitch” the compromised area back together. Fellow builder Sam Guidry and I have had many conversations about the effect cleats and backers can have on the overall tone of an instrument. Tone is king in the end, so any step in the process that doesn’t increase stability and also decreases tone is certainly not a good choice.
In our repair shop, we often remove unnecessary cleats from older instruments. Any extra mass from the cleats can hurt tone, especially if the cleats are on the top. If the crack being repaired can fit back together tightly—often the case with a lack-of-humidity crack—the glue joint will be strong enough to hold the repair together on its own, and will also add a level of external sealant against humidity, oils, polishes, and such. In fact, cleating a crack like this can lead to other cracks. How can this be?
We must understand that lack-of-humidity cracks occur when a guitar’s wood dries out and shrinks. Once the crack is repaired, it should stay closed if the instrument is properly humidified. A cleated humidity crack will not stay closed any better than a well-glued, properly re-humidified crack repair. And since a cleated crack will often cause a split next to the cleat if the guitar dries out once again, you could end up with a repaired crack, a cleat, and a new crack beside the cleat. We prefer to simply re-glue such cracks, educate customers, and send them on their way with a new humidifier.
As repair people, we want ideal situations where what we are fixing fits together perfectly and to know the glue-up will be easy. As we all know, however, life just isn’t that easy. Anytime we think a glue joint won’t be enough to hold, then “to cleat, or not to cleat” is the question. We will often advise our customers that they not cleat and wait to see how it goes if stability seems at all probable. With a general, everyday crack repair, it is very seldom that I choose to cleat the crack. But then again, on some older vintage instruments, the cracks have likely been open for decades and the repair will not be a sound one without some assistance. Yes, we are very sensitive about adding material to an instrument and generally choose the conservative approach so to not compromise the instrument, but sometimes there is no other option.
While a cleat is typically a small piece of wood (generally the size of a dime and in the shapes of squares, diamonds, or circles), backers are thin, longer cross-grained supports for strengthening larger areas. Don’t get me wrong: Either of these options, if performed professionally, can be the correct choice. Cleats and backers can help repair and stabilize what seems to be irreparable damage to an instrument. It’s just that the general need for cleats or backers has been widely exaggerated. Not only have we often removed unneeded cleats and backers from instruments, we’ve also removed them because they were installed poorly. That’s because installing a cleat or backer is a tough job to perform correctly and cleanly. Even the excess glue that can come with a poorly installed cleat or backer is an issue.
I have owned some of the most desirable world-class acoustic guitars—both vintage and otherwise. As a player and repairperson, I have restored these instruments (including the removal of many unnecessary internal repairs) to bring tone back to life. And these instruments have held up fine, cracks and all. This is not always the case, so, again, make sure you talk all options through with your repairperson to confirm you are making the correct choice for your instrument.
Tool up to get the job done right, and save time and your sanity in the process.
I’m a cheap bastard. Frugal to a fault, I’m always trying to rub two nickels together to make a quarter. But if you ask anyone who has ever worked in my shop, they’ll tell you I always buy the very best tools and equipment. How can these disparate ideas exist within the same framework? The simple answer is that great tools save money over the long haul. It doesn’t matter if you are a butcher or a bassist, a carpenter or a composer—it’s all the same game. Buying and experimenting with tools is also a lot like buying effects pedals, and it’s just as addictive.
Learn what good is. The first order of business is to learn who makes the good stuff, which can only be understood by using a lot of tools. Starting in my teens, I had lots of jobs in factories that put me in touch with equipment, good and bad. Each of these jobs required using hand tools and machinery. The higher-tech industrial jobs usually employed commercial-grade tools that would never be found in a hardware store. It was eye-opening.
Ask a pro. As dreary as some of these gigs were, the education they provided was precious. Tip: Stick your nose into everything and ask questions. Most people who have developed pro skills truly enjoy sharing knowledge with others who show interest in doing things well. Think of it as building a personal reference library for your future. Having an encyclopedic knowledge of specialized tools and products gives you a leg up on anything that comes your way. I’m faced with situations in my shop every day that draw upon things I’ve learned from others. Sure, YouTube videos can be helpful, but nothing beats working with real professionals in the field.
Start collecting tools. A great set of tools makes your life easier. Start with the obvious: screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, drills, and saws. Learn the difference between all the varieties and start building a warehouse of sizes and capabilities. Just because a screwdriver goes into a screw doesn’t mean it’s the one to use. Having and using the right size means you won’t damage the parts, or your tools.
Unfortunately, great tools usually cost a lot more. “Pay now or cry later” is the old saying that tells us we should bite the bullet and pay for the real stuff. A good tool can last a lifetime, but most of the cheap hardware-store tools won’t last five seasons of real work. I bought some top-grade wrenches in the 1970s that I still use every day.
Just do the math: Not only were they cheaper in the long run, they worked better out of the gate. One of my favorite places to shop for tools online is Harry J. Epstein Co., where they covet well-made stuff. You can find a lot of the basic implements, and there’s a closeout section that can save you money. If you carefully curate your collection, it won’t be long before you can tackle any job easily.
New isn’t always better. Because good tools last, it means that secondhand can be better than buying new. Right now there is a glut of used, industrial equipment out there just waiting to be had for a song. If you have collected the tools and the know-how, rebuilding these old warhorses can be a fairly straightforward and satisfying exercise. I’d prefer a solidly built cast-iron band saw over a brand new welded-tube job from a catalog any day. It will perform better and last longer, not to mention it’ll look cooler too. The same goes for hand tools.
Buying multiples. My day starts with a cup of coffee and the tools section of Craigslist. You’d think by now I’d have enough tools to stop looking, but there’s a reason for more. Nothing beats always having the right tool, right where you use it. It may not seem like a big deal to walk a few feet and dig through a drawer for the right Allen wrench, but the time adds up and can interrupt your concentration. Keep the right tools close. You’ll smile every time you reach for them.
Power cords. If you are going to buy power equipment, make sure you factor in the electrical load. If you buy a piece of gear that exceeds the available current in your shop, you’ll regret it. On the flip side, a lot of older machines get passed up because they require 3-phase power. Get familiar with variable frequency drives (VFD) so you can easily and affordably power older machinery with your single-phase, 220V shop power. The bonus is that you can control speed and ramp-up, as well as electronic braking.
Looking backwards at the path I’ve traveled reveals that almost every random thing I’ve learned has paid off eventually. Even the crappiest factory job taught me something useful. And when I buy a great tool, I don’t cry at all. Hopefully now you won’t either.