shifting gears

Whether you call it a lead, a cord, or a cable, that shielded wire that links your guitar to your amp—and your music to your audience—is a vital link in your tone chain.

As you hone your style over the years, you usually figure out whether you’re a Strat guy, a Tele guy, a Les Paul guy—or something that’s sort of a mix of those. You then focus on what amp is going to give you the best possible sound. Often it’s Marshalls or Boogies for you rockers, Fender Twins for the chicken-pickers, or something more out of the ordinary like a Line 6 DT50 might be your amp of choice. Then it’s time to pick out what pedals will give you the right je ne sais quoi.

Once you settle all that, what’s next? Whether you call it a lead, a cord, or a cable, that shielded wire that links your guitar to your amp—and your music to your audience—is a vital link in your tone chain. All things considered, you may never think much about it, but it’s as integral to your sound as your other gear.

Over the years, I’ve had guitarists tell me all they need is a cheap, knock-off model guitar to sound good—that all their tone comes from their hands. I’ve heard others say you’ve got to have top-notch gear to sound great. These are both valid schools of thought. I’ve also seen guys struggle onstage using haphazard, jerry-rigged, MacGyver-style setups. I’ve watched them kick crackling cables and shake connections to keep a signal running to their amp. Somehow, I can’t get behind that as an effective option.

If you’re the type of player who believes in having top-of-the line gear, it won’t really matter how spectacular and expensive your guitar, amp, and pedals are if it all travels from one end to the other through poorly made, subpar connections. A good cable doesn’t have to cost a whole lot of money, but the better ones do cost a little more. Buying a brand-name cable—ideally one with a guarantee—usually helps. I’ve purchased cables that had lifetime guarantees, and that’s quite a declaration for a cord. Of course I lost them or left them at a gig long before they ever had a chance to go bad, so who knows? Maybe someone is still using them today.

When buying a guitar cable, size does matter. Cables will always add some capacitance and a load to your guitar’s signal. The longer the cable, the more it adds. A little might not be too bad, but a lot can completely screw up the tone you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Most standard guitar cables are about 18’ long. Which makes sense, as my web research reveals that cable lengths of 20’ can begin to dull your tone.

And that’s even with a quality cable. Use an inferior cord, and you’ll more than likely start to hear some high-end loss in your rig. Your guitar may sound dull or muted, and undoubtedly you’ll start to pick up noise. I used to run a thin 40’ foot cable to my pedalboard and back through a multi-pin snake. It was a quick and easy setup, but ultimately I was playing music through 80’ of bad signal path. I was blown away at the amount of punch and high end I gained back when I changed my rig around and no longer ran signal out to the pedals. It made a gigantic difference.

On the flip side, if you have too much bright spikiness in your sound, or if you just want to mellow it out for a vintage tone, you may want to try a more old-school approach and dig out what I’ve always called a “curly cord.” They were very popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Hendrix used one, and so did many of the top artists of the day. You can see these curled cords (Pro Co Lifelines are one brand/make that’s been around for a long time) being used on reruns of the old Midnight Special TV variety show. I’m pretty sure that the guitar greats of that era would have used better cables if they were available, but this was the technology of the day, and it inadvertently helped shape their sounds.

Retro to the Max: Vox is one of several companies offering coiled guitar cables, which are making a comeback after being ignored for decades.

A respectable cable can cost a bit more than a generic one. I’m not recommending that you go out and spend $150 on an 18’ guitar cord (yes, they are out there). A true audiophile may argue with me, but personally I don’t hear $120 worth of difference between one of those high-dollar connectors and a decent standard one. You may want to go to your local music store to A/B them yourself. After all, Eric Johnson says different cables and even different types of batteries in his stompboxes change his sound, and you might find you agree with him.

The patch cables that hook all your pedals together should be given the same consideration as the cord that hangs from your guitar. Even if you’ve got the best cables money can buy running from your guitar to your pedalboard and from there to your amp, the audio will still have to travel through the dinky signal path between effects. My guitar tech goes crazy over this stuff. He makes sure that every cable is of good quality, and he will even shorten patch cables so the signal doesn’t travel even one gratuitous millimeter more than necessary between pedals.

Next time you plug in, take a look at the umbilical cord that’s the lifeline to your music, and make sure you’re hooked up right!

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Rich shares first-hand experience for optimizing your home recordings

When you record, do you find yourself asking time and again, “Why does my tone sound so thin on playback when it sounded perfectly good out of the amp?” It’s an ongoing challenge for guitarists to try and track their tone. A few months back, I talked a little about some of the techniques I used to mic and record my guitars on my Cottage City Firehouse CD. This month we’ll reach deeper into the fire as I share some bits that will help you capture better guitar tones in the studio.

These days we’re able to make wonderful-sounding recordings for less money than ever. My gadget of choice is Pro Tools, but there are many other recording applications and devices out there that are affordable and easy to use. You don’t have to be a graduate of a recording institute to capture good sounds. With a few proper microphones and a couple of tricks of the trade you can get your guitars to sound as big as Texas. One thing a lot of folks overlook is the fact that much of the sound of the amp is affected by the room it’s in while tracking. You can turn this to your advantage by using multiple mic’ing techniques to capture the room for an even bigger sound.

A really good example of this can be found on my song “The Hudson Strut.” On that song, I stuck a Shure KSM27 mic right up to the speaker cone, and I placed another about six feet back and off to the side to capture more of what was going on in the room. I recorded it in my home bonus room studio. The room is the size of a two-car garage and not totally dead or baffled. It has some life to it, and you can hear the room on the track. Without the second mic, the guitar would have sounded lifeless and plain. I have also used bathrooms and hallways to mic guitars, and I’ve even gone to the extreme opposite end and enclosed the speaker cabinets with couch cushions to make it sound dead. The possibilities are endless, even without leaving your house. Often, you can use small 5- or 10-watt amps that, when recorded in a lively room like a bathroom or kitchen, can sound gigantic, particularly when you mic from a distance where you can hear the room.

Another interesting technique I used was on “Bldg. 55,” where I tracked the entire song using only a PRS Swamp Ash Special plugged into different amps with different mic’ing techniques—and I changed the pickup selection along the way. I was fascinated with the way the guitar responded so differently through the various rigs. On some of the tracks, I played it through a Kustom Coupe half-stack mic’d close with the Shure KSM27 then put another KSM27 in the corner of the room. There are no rules; it’s all about experimentation. I would then plug the same guitar into my old Music Man HD-130 and mic it with only one mic direct on the cone, moving the mic till I found the “sweet spot.” It made the guitar sound completely different. If you like what you’re hearing, record it. If you don’t like it, move the mic and try again.

Another way to go these days is by recording direct and creating the room sound you want digitally. On “Seisenheimer Strasse 9,” I used my big fat Gibson 165 Herb Ellis Signature Series guitar. I have it strung with flatwounds and ran it through a Pod Pro II. With it I was able to simulate not only the type and angle of the mic but what amp I was running through. Since this is a jazzier song, I chose a small 1x12 combo amp. I was still able to create how much of the room was being heard on the track. The replication on some of these units is remarkable. I could truly hear the rooms vary as I scrolled through the settings.

You can do so much experimentation with your mics that the possibilities are endless. You can try simultaneously mic’ing your cabinet with three or four different mics, maybe a Shure SM57, a Senheiser MD 421 and an AKG C 412, and solo each one on playback to determine which is getting the job done for you. Using them at the same time will save you from having to re-track a part numerous times in order to try out various mics. You can also mic straight-on or at an angle, and of course mic’ing at a distance to capture the room is an essential part of a well-recorded guitar.

Well, there’s a closer look behind the scenes of Cottage City Firehouse. With some savvy experimentation you can pull off some astonishing results and really impress yourself and amaze your listening audience with a top-quality home recording.

Keep jammin’!

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Finding a gem in a far off land

I just returned from a whirlwind tour of Europe and the UK. Along the way I stopped into every tiny music store I could find from Stockholm to Rome looking for some sort of mega-cool, major-vibe-motivated pedal that might just give my tone something novel and fresh. Many of the stores there don’t carry the major brands I’m used to—Gibson, Fender, Marshall, etc. At first it was a major bummer, but as one does in life I learned to embrace it. Whoever first said, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” deserves to be remembered for his keen insight and way with words. No truer words have been spoken when it comes to finding an exciting new pedal across the pond. After getting over the fact that Europe is plagued with no-name gear, I settled into the reality that I was looking for something different, so there really was no point in sifting through a pile of pedals that I already have or know about to find something unique. Although each location had some unique pedals to offer, we were still talking about your typical overdrive, chorus, delay and wah pedals. Many of them had their own distinctive character and were worth checking out. After a noble search, I found nothing that really rocked my world until I arrived at the home of Art Nouveau buildings and Robert Vaughn’s late night hair care infomercial: Helsinki, Finland.

Months before the European tour started, I had received an email from a Finlander named Harri Koski. He had purchased a copy of my CD, Cottage City Firehouse, and wanted to meet me when I played in his town. Little did I know that Harri was the co-founder of BJF Design pedals and Mad Professor amps. After the show, Harri and I along with one of his associates met at my hotel for a few shots of Salmiakki and gear talk. He brought as a gift a small box containing one of his overdrive pedals. When I opened it up to take a look inside, I found he had given me one of his Sweet Honey Overdrive pedals, and it looked to be a mega-cool, major-vibe-motivated pedal that might just give my tone something new and fresh.

Our days on the road were packed with long bus rides, plane trips and often lengthy sound checks, so I traveled with this fabulous pedal for weeks in the box, never finding time to plug it in and give it a test drive. Once I got back to the states and was able to get into my standard routine again, I seized a moment to sit down with the Sweet Honey and give it a full-throttle, spiritual audition. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of it. I guess I was expecting a major-league overdrive, fuzz-tone blare-fest and I wasn’t getting that. After a few moments, I appreciated what this pedal was designed to do and I loved it. It’s more of a touch-sensitive, low-gain overdrive pedal. It seemed to give a lot of dynamic control without dirtying the clean sound. It’s really much more like a tube amp’s gentle breakup. After further scrutiny, I discovered that it reacts quite nicely to dynamic playing, breaking up less when you pick or strum lightly and more when you really lay in to it—a much more natural response than you’ll find in most pedals. It has a Volume and Drive knob, of course, but I was much more intrigued by the third addition to the knob playground: the Focus knob. This was the “vibey” part. Gaining it up, it acts as a subtle treble boost. Dialing it back gives you a less edgy tone and causes you to have to dig in more to get it to drive. The more I played with it the more fun I had, and the more I started to realize all of its potential. Often a new guitar, amp or pedal will inspire some creative output. This is one of those pedals.

You just never know where that next mega-cool, major-vibe-motivated piece of gear might come from. I never would have guessed Helsinki, Finland. I can absolutely see this stompbox becoming a part of my studio rig. And like any kid with a new toy, I will be using it on everything (probably over-using it) for a while. I wish I’d known about this pedal before I recorded my last album. It would’ve found a place on many of the tracks.

Keep Jammin’

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