It is quite amazing how unique we are as guitarists. If 10 players were to play the same instrument with the identical setup, each would sound very different from the

It is quite amazing how unique we are as guitarists. If 10 players were to play the same instrument with the identical setup, each would sound very different from the others. This is due to the different ways we touch our instrument.

I want to delve into this subject a bit this month because of some recent personal experiences that opened my ears (and eyes). Specifically, I’ve been reminded how dramatically the tonal landscape changes when you attack the strings with only bare flesh and nails. For starters, your sound is a bit darker when you strike the strings with flesh instead of plastic. And when fingers wander, they have a tendency to direct you to new discoveries.

If you try playing sans pick, you’ll soon find that your fingers become one with a guitar after only a few hours—they don’t require much time to acclimate to their new surroundings. What happens next is really cool. It’s as if you have to play without a pick to experience all the little things that make a huge imprint on your sounds and styles.

We can use Jeff Beck as a prime example of this concept. I believe Beck totally dropped his pick and started using a fingerstyle technique somewhere around ’83 or ’84. (You can do your own detective work by scoping out the many YouTube videos that feature Beck over the years.) This one shift in coaxing sounds from his strings put Beck miles ahead of the game, tonally and otherwise. Playing fingerstyle is most definitely a huge factor in the number of sounds he’s able to coax from his instrument.

If you watch and listen closely to Beck, you’ll notice how he can shift the timbre of each note or phrase. One key is to keep an eye on his pickup switch (again, there are plenty of examples to study on YouTube). Often, he’ll keep it stationary (perhaps on the neck pickup), yet a note will sound mellow one moment and cut sharply the next. He uses his fingertips as an equalizer by striking the string at different points to create a range of tones. Within a split second, he’ll move from decidedly gorgeous tones to sounds chockfull of attitude.

If you watch and listen closely to Beck, you’ll notice how he can shift the timbre of each note or phrase . . . He uses his fingertips as an equalizer by striking the string at different points to create a range of tones.

Of course, this also applies to acoustic guitar. Several years ago I had a houseguest, and it wasn’t long before he asked to play one of my guitars. I handed him my nice little Martin 000-16, but something went awry from the first chord he struck. Can you imagine an acoustic guitar naturally distorting due to someone playing it too hard? Yep, this happens all the time. When you touch an instrument the wrong way, be prepared to hear about it instantly.

In this case, the Martin began to choke and sound harsh and muffled as I listened from across the coffee table. I immediately grabbed it from my guest and played it for him the way I knew it liked to be touched. The sound went from a clattering noise to a glorious, full-spectrum tone. The difference was profound, to put it mildly.

What happened was that I’d simply applied the principle of least effort. Sometimes playing hard can sound downright awful. You must locate the kinetic sweet spot on a good instrument before it will reveal its full sonic potential. Part of the mystery and fun of playing a good instrument is finding the touch required to awaken its true voice. But there’s a catch: You have to find this sweet spot by yourself—which is not a bad thing. It’s merely part of the process of making music. Once you get the proper feeling in your picking hand, it will all kick in. Believe me, the rewards are massive.

Lately, I’ve noticed that many of my favorite players seem to like the direct approach of using bare fingers on thee strings. Daniel Lanois is another wonderful example of this—a great producer and greater musician, quite frankly. Lanois pulls out unique and exciting tones from his Les Paul and pedal steel. His new band, Black Dub, is truly amazing, so be sure to check them out.

One last thought: I’ve discovered that playing au natural actually improves the way I play when I use a pick—which is often. That was another aspect of the fingerstyle journey that took me by surprise. The moral of this story? Getting into the rawer down ’n’ dirty basics can yield some beyond-cool sounds. So dig in and find out for yourself.

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Going back to the different styles tied to different tremolo bars

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been keenly watching how guitarists the world over are using their tremolo arms. I’ve observed (and heard) a major difference in the way European guitarists use their tremolo arms as compared to their American counterparts. However, before we go deeper into these differences in technique, we must go back to where all this fuss began.

In my view, there are basically three main types of tremolo bars. The first really important development in this area would be the Bigsby vibrato unit, which evolved in the late 1940s. Initially, this system was intended to imitate the sound of a Hawaiian lap steel, and I believe its intended application was to create a subtle effect. Chet Atkins and the Gretsch guitars he played were instrumental in the success of the Bigsby because Chet used Bigsbys a lot on his recordings. Just as that sound was getting embedded in guitarists’ ears, rock ’n’ roll got raunchier and more brazen. As a result, guitarists started using the Bigsby more physically, producing wilder sounds with the device. This was one of many instances where technique evolved along with the music of the day.

In 1954, Fender introduced the revolutionary Stratocaster model with the new optional synchronized tremolo system— the first response to the Bigsby’s opening salvo and the second crucial advance in tremolo design. Buddy Holly used his Strat’s tremolo arm more like how guitarists first used the Bigsby to generate subtle pitch bends, but it didn’t take long for guitarists to discover the Stratocaster’s trem enabled more extreme pitch changes.

With its factory-installed Bigsby, this Epiphone Casino VS is ready for
a big night of twang-filled fun. Photo courtesy of Epiphone Guitars

At about that same time, rockabilly music came along and inspired even wilder use of tremolos. As this trend grew, prominent players like Cliff Gallup (Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps), Duane Eddy (writer of the timeless “Peter Gunn Theme”), and Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) incorporated the trem into their twangy sound.

But between 1966 and 1967, Jimi Hendrix came on the scene and changed just about everything imaginable about the electric guitar. Hendrix gave the Stratocaster much more prominence than it had enjoyed before, and a huge reason for that was the radical way he used its tremolo—indeed, the way he abused it.

So far, we’ve looked at several key examples of how American guitarists used their tremolo bars up to this point in time. But there’s an important twist to the story. If you’ve listened to many European guitarists over the same years we’ve been talking about, you might have noticed that most of them used their tremolo bars to produce what might be perceived as finger vibrato.

For example, let’s take fusion master Allan Holdsworth’s original sound from The New Tony Williams Lifetime album Believe It. One of the main things that distinguished Holdsworth on that record was how he used the Maestro Vibrola bar on his SG Custom (the tune “Fred” offers a great first taste of this)—it was yet another tremolo sound, and, it was even more subtle than that of the early Bigsby players.

So, the tremolo was starting to get more use as a softer effect as a general trend among guitarists across the pond. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a huge difference in musical intent. This European mindset was no doubt more influenced by classical music, as well. Other European guitarists who have used this type of tremolo effect include Norway’s Terje Rypdal (listen to his album If Mountains Could Sing) or Germany’s Thomas Blug (see his Flash CD or look him up on YouTube). I would also recommend listening to John McLaughlin play his Bigsby-equipped Gibson Johnny Smith on The Promise.

By 1977 or so, Adrian Belew and Edward Van Halen were emerging and—presto!—change was looming large once again! This change was heard via Talking Heads tunes, where Adrian Belew was making a ton of very unorthodox sounds with his Stratocaster’s tremolo arm (and with his vast array of effects pedals). While Belew went on to become famous for his animal-like sounds on King Crimson albums such as Discipline, a third name would come to the forefront of vibrato design—Floyd Rose.

EVH embraced the Floyd very early on, and once again tremolo use got even crazier thanks in large part to his dive-bombing. This technique ruled for quite a spell—well into the ’80s. Toward the end of the decade, Jeff Beck would surprise the hell out of everyone with an album called Guitar Shop. The tones he produced on “Where Were You” would prove to be among the most evocative ever pulled from a Fender Stratocaster—and that was because his super-advanced trem chops allowed him to mimic the human voice (among other things).

Since then, Beck has owned the title of Twang Bar King in many people’s opinions, and rightly so. Even more amazing is the fact that he continues to grow, making more and more otherworldly sounds with each recording. Check out the bonus track “Cry Me a River” (from Beck’s 2010 release Emotion and Commotion). There is a metric ton of great live Beck performances to explore on YouTube, as well.

So, to conclude for this month, I highly encourage players of all stripes to listen to what is coming in from afar. Honestly, you never can tell what you are going to do with that tremolo. You might be the next innovator!

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It’s amazing how unusual circumstances can connect players with great guitar equipment.

It’s amazing how unusual circumstances can connect players with great guitar equipment. And that applies doubly when it occurs in unexpected places! Such was the case when I was visiting Stockholm, Sweden, on a business trip in the winter of 1992-1993. One day, I went downtown to meet a friend. We’d decided to meet at one of Stockholm’s best music stores before going out to dinner. As I was standing at the front counter, peering through the glass display at the pick selection, I noticed this very personable fellow next to me who appeared to be returning a slew of repaired amps to the store. A few minutes later, my friend arrived and off we went to eat.

At that point, I didn’t think too much about my first encounter with the mysterious gentleman who’d been standing next to me. I figured he was an amplifier technician. Well, sort of . . . as I later found out. Fast-forward a decade: I was talking on the phone with one Bjorn Juhl, when he suddenly exclaimed, “You know what? I think we’ve met before.” When I asked him to describe where and when, he told me that he remembered a floor-length submarine jacket and a unique pair of red-on-black Spanish lace boots I wore that day. Those outrageously colorful boots ultimately hooked me up with a new amplifier: The Mad Professor CS-40. Fate you say? Definitely! Because it wasn’t long before Bjorn was making a serious attempt to get a Mad Professor CS-40 amp head to me to get an opinion on it.

At the time, a circle of close gearhead friends and I were getting ready to host our third annual “Tone Fest,” an event we’d started to showcase vintage or boutique amplifiers. The idea was to provide an opportunity for guitarists to get hands-on experience with equipment they might be curious about. And this was precisely where the Mad Professor made its debut— Tone Fest 2004. This particular amplifier has become one of my all-time favorites. Let’s take a look at some of its unique features and see why savvy players love it so much.

The CS-40 is, first of all, in the same category as other fast-response amps we’ve discussed in recent columns (Dumble in July 2010, Vox AC30 in August and December 2010, and Hiwatt in September 2010).

Several controls on the CS-40 are very cleverly designed for maximum versatility. The 4-position Focus control helps you “match” speaker cabinets to the CS-40 head. This control affects the amp’s feel and the sonic textures it produces. In position 1, the CS-40 delivers American-style sounds (think classic Fender tones). Position 2 yields some really amazing, early British sounds (yep, think Vox AC30 here as a reference). At position 3, you’ll easily cop some later British-style tones (thinking classic Marshall isn’t a bad idea). Finally, in position 4, the CS-40 enters the realm of modern British sounds enhanced with top boost. These tones are grittier sounding, but very defined.

The CS-40’s Tonal Balance knob is another deviously designed audio manipulator. Turning it counterclockwise from noon offers a really fat midrange sound that gets close to Dumble territory. Turning it clockwise from noon makes the sound brighter and thinner. However, in this scenario, turning up the Master volume or Channel volume fills things out very, very nicely. It’s clear the CS-40 was designed from the ground up to deliver well-defined, heavy distortion.

Next to the input jack is a 2-position switch labeled Tube and F.E.T. In the latter position, this switch can take weak pickups (such as Danelectro lipsticks) and make them sound much stronger. It’s uncanny! The Tube setting is voiced for hotter pickups, such as humbuckers on a Les Paul. P-90s produce gnarly tones in any of these settings, and this marriage of amp and pickups is one of my favorite—it’s so beautifully rude.

Want more volume, even if you’re already cranked wide open? No problem. Just dial in some boost using the front-panel control, hit the CS-40’s Boost switch, and prepare to be thrown against the nearest wall. Most other amps have nowhere left to go when they’re already cranked, but this is where the Mad Professor really shines. Believe me, it was a big surprise the first time I heard this.

In my experience, this amplifier has no bad sounds in it, and I really like the fact that it can be mean or clean or any shade in-between. Little touches, like having Normal and Abnormal channels, reveal Bjorn’s dry sense of humor. You can also plug your guitar directly into the effects loop and bypass the amplifier’s preamp. This delivers what Bjorn describes as “the secret sound”— where you get more of the power section doing its job. And what a cool sound it is! If you get the opportunity and are inclined toward fast-response amps, I highly recommend you try out the CS-40 designs.

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The Kelley FACS (Foot Activated Channel Switching) amplifier runs four 6V6s in its output tube section and is known for its extremely high plate voltages— 485 volts!

An early Jim Kelley Amplifiers ad featuring the FACS amp and Lee Ritenour. Photo courtesy of Jim Kelley
When I think about my first day working the phones for Groove Tubes so many years ago, I still get sentimental. The reason is simple: My first call that day came from legendary amp builder Ken Fischer! In 1981, Ken was just starting up Trainwreck Circuits, and he bought a ton of tubes.

On my second day there, I fielded a call from Jim Kelley of Active Guitar Electronics. His shop was in Tustin, California, which was roughly an hour away, and he needed tubes immediately. Somebody had to deliver them, and that turned out to be me. When I arrived at Jim’s shop, I noticed two units on the bench. One was a combo that resembled a 4x10 Bassman with a wicker-cane grill and one was an Active Guitar Electronics attenuator unit—which, in my opinion, was the finest attenuator made during that era, because it didn’t shave off critical high frequencies like so many other units did back then.

That was the first time I played through a Jim Kelley amplifier, and it sounded amazing. It had a very smooth, even tone with great string-to-string separation. It reminded me of sipping a rich and creamy chocolate milkshake.

The Kelley FACS (Foot Activated Channel Switching) amplifier runs four 6V6s in its output tube section and is known for its extremely high plate voltages— 485 volts! That’s about 20 volts hotter than a modern-day Marshall head. An old blackface Fender Deluxe runs about 430 volts on its 6V6s, so you can see just how brutal that 485-volts reading is to the FACS’ output tubes.

You can switch the FACS’ output from 30 watts to 60 watts. In the 30-watt mode, only two output tubes are active, whereas all four output tubes are active in the 60-watt setting. The amp’s massively over-designed power transformer is rated at 135 watts RMS, which guarantees it an easy life, even when you drive the amplifier at full power. The FACS also sports active-shelving EQ controls, which sound very open, breathy, and natural. These amps have tremendous reverb circuits as well, with a deep, rich tone. Operating a FACS combo or head is very straightforward, because the front panel has only three controls: Gain (which has a pull-out Presence function), Treble (with a pull-out Bright setting), and Bass (with a pull-out Mid-boost function).

Bonnie Raitt onstage with her Jim Kelley FACS 1x12 combo (right) and Active Guitar Electronics
attenuator unit during her 1982 Green Light tour. Photo courtesy of Jim Kelley

One key element of the FACS circuit is that the tone controls boost and cut from the noon position. Adjusting counterclockwise from 12 o’clock cuts the setting, while adjusting clockwise past 12 o’ clock boosts it. It’s a brilliant design. I ended up playing through a couple of Jim Kelley amps for nearly 20 years. Many consider this gem of an amp “the other Dumble.” Why? Because it doesn’t have one iota of harshness in it.

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