Hey there fellow gear heads. In the last few installments we have pondered the quest for the ever illusive “Tone” and how to achieve the sound we have been so long searching for. From picking instruments to amplification and effects, we covered the gamut and broke down the most critical points. Now that we have the basics down, it’s time to start dealing with the details.
We have all had that more than confounding moment when we have just strung up new strings on our electric guitar or bass, wound them up to tune, went to play a chord and something just was not right…especially when you begin to move up the fret board. Suddenly your perfectly tuned old friend sounds janky as can be. “Why God, why when it used to sound so great does it now sound like hammered…well you know!”
Don’t worry this is a much more common situation than you may think. Believe it or not in my more than 15 years as an engineer I have only met a handful of musicians who intonate regularly. The perfectionists do it almost as regularly as tuning, especially if the instrument has been moved frequently from one location to another. The easiest way to tell if your guitar is intonated properly is with a tuner.
Turn your tuner on and pluck an open sixth string, now place your finger on the twelfth fret of the sixth string and pluck it again. The tuner should read EXACTLY the same, or at least as close as possible for proper intonation. Follow this simple step for all strings on the instrument and you will soon find the culprit that is not intonated. “Well how did my previously intonated instrument get suddenly dis-intonated in the first friggin’ place?” you may ask. Well here’s the perfectly simple answer.
Let’s say you move the instrument a lot and bump it around, like in the trunk of a car perhaps, change a string or in this case all of the strings the saddles spring loose tension and set the saddles to a different position. A different position, even slightly, can change the intonation of a string. Let’s break down the operating principles here, first the parts.
The groovy plate that holds your strings in place on the body of your guitar is called a “Bridge”. The super neat little blocks that the strings sit on are called the “Saddles” and the long screws with springs around them are called the “Saddle Adjustment Screws”, these determine the distance of each string saddle from the edge of the bridge. Now that we know the parts let see how this happens. Remember, a guitar is a tension instrument. This means that the tone is created by the vibration of a string held under tension. The bridge holds the string ball or tied end to the guitar body to provide the resonance and on the opposite end of the guitar is the nut and tuning machines which provide, well the amount of tension. “Hey what about those nifty saddles you were talking about?”
Well my friend whereas the bridge provides the resonance and the tuning machines and nut provide the tension, the saddles provide the height of the string from the neck and the saddle adjustment screw allow you to change subtleties of string tuning by allowing you to adjust the bridge tension on the string, less tension at the bridge makes the note of the string to flat and more tension brings the note to sharp.
A quick review of the old mnemonic device “lefty loosey, righty tighty” and I think you can figure out that a turn to the right on the saddle adjustment crew yields a sharper note than the turn to the left which renders a flatter note. With your tuner on go from open note to twelfth fret on each string slowly and slightly turning the saddle adjustment screw appropriately until the desired intonation on each string is reached.
Viola! One perfectly tuned and intonated instrument. Now I know all you repair techs are like “Hey man, you just told them all.” Yes, I did. If a car owner should know that his tires need to be rotated regularly then guitarists need to know they sound funny when not properly intonated…there I said it. And there you have it, the Austin Hot Mods simple guide to intonation, what it is, why you need it and how to attain it. Until next time, may your fingers be nimble and your notes sustained to perfection.
~Christopher Jordan has been a live audio/video engineer and recording artist for over 15 years and owns AustinHotMods.com an Austin,TX based pedal modification and repair company.~
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Hey there fellow tone freaks. We certainly hope you enjoyed your holiday season. While some elves were getting toys ready for all the boys and girls, our were busy furiously filling special requests and designing all new toys to bring to all of you rockin’ girls and boys. From the many requests we’ve received we have begun a new line of Bass pedal mods as well as including more selectable switches…see guys, we watch and listen…and just like Santa, except instead of creepily sneaking into your house while you and your children sleep we just crank up the decibels until your neighbors call the cops or you let us in, which ever happens first. Speaking of decibels let’s get to the introductions. Our first two out of the gate as we mentioned are the first forays into the realm of Bass effect pedals.
The Bumble Bee is the first bass overdrive mod bringing juice out of Boss ODB-3 like you’ve never heard.
In the same Boss Bass pedal family we bring to you the Freq-O-Plex, a chorus from another realm with optional frequency switching that brings a whole new life in this old standard.
Finally in the bass pedal category is the Big Squeeze a DOD FX_B2 like no other with increase range, tonal and sustain…try it on a guitar.,.super huge sound!
The next category of mods we had numerous requests for was boost pedals. We started with two of the most popular models and transmogrified them into boosters that will get you to the stratosphere and beyond…
The Golden Road is a boost that has a bite. With a beefed up circuit capable of almost 10x the original gain it’s a screamer. Add to this our built in post gain distortion and you have a palm size rocket ship.
The Rio Bravo mod takes the popular BBE Boosta Grande and thickens the gain structure, increases sustain and tone while lowering noise floor.
The next few pedals were a mix of special requests and optional designs to distortion mods we already provide:
The Dirty Woman leads the pack as a new version of our already very popular Crazy Diamond mod for the Boss BD-2. We take the stock circuit, rebuilt the gain structure, increase the range and sustain and include a selectable distortion as well as a two fuzz mod that is sure to be as nasty as you want it to be.
The Cygnus mod is the third in our series of mods for the Boss DS-1. This mod takes the input stage and rocks it’s world while increasing the over all bass and mid range as well as offering a selectable Visual Distortion.
The last of the new distortion mods added in this edition is the “Green Demon” mod for the very popular and vintage sounding Maxon OD-808. In the Green Demon mod we take the already awesome stock 808 and trick it out with increased tonal range, more gain and a selectable distortion that lets you scream like you were just released from the nether realm.
Finally, a personal favourite, I have always loved the sound of wah pedals. The idea of the autowah since I bought my first Boss AW-2 many many moons ago. In the Funkmeister mod for this more than popular and oft complained about pedal we increase the input resistance to allow the pedal to cut through, give the bass and mids a tweak to make the range more useable and add an optional Freq-Attack knob that makes the range of sweep out of control, add on the Elevator switch and wah you way through the galaxy on crazy tones you wont believe.
Well there you have it, the nine newest additions to the Austin Hot Mods family. We hope you’ll take some time to stop on by and listen to some Audio Samples, watch a few Mod Videos and hey, don’t forget the Tips and Tricks section that brings you ever closer to the vast wealth of knowledge that exists in the inner realms of the Austin Hot Mods workshop. Thanks for everything over the entirety of the year 2013, we would be no where without all of you loyal gear heads. Until next time true believers, take your time, tune your strings…then make their ears bleed!
~Austin Hot Mods~
We began our journey to find the ever-quested tone that every guitarist is searching for by examining exactly what to look for in the instrument you choose to play. Now that you have found the instrument you like and it feels right to your fingers, we have to figure out exactly what amplifier we should invest in. I could say “buy” or “purchase”, but the word “invest” is chosen here for a very specific reason. Groceries, batteries, even strings are purchased or bought; they are commodities that are made to wear out and be replaced. This should most definitely NOT be the case when it comes to one’s means of amplification. This is just like any other “investment” you make, be it a house or a car, you wouldn’t just go out and buy a car that you know you are going to drive every day for the next ten years without researching some information first. You want to know things like what the gas mileage, is it rated well for safety, will it carry my whole family…and not to mention my super sweet new amplifier. These are some of the things you would want to know when investing in a vehicle. “So exactly what should I know about the amplifier I will invest in?” you may be asking yourself. Well here are the basic decisions to start off with and we will get into each in detail.
· Tube vs. Solid-State
· Combo vs. Amp & Cabinet
· Wattage needed
· Speaker size
Let’s start at the beginning, tube “valve” amplification versus solid-state amplification. A tube or “valve” is basically a fancy word for an electronic amplification triode which consists of three electrodes inside an evacuated glass envelope: a heated filament or cathode, a grid, and a plate (anode) allowing you to amplify the voltage of and incoming signal. With a tube amp there are a couple of steps to starting up the amp itself. You start by turning on the amplifier power with the amplifier in standby. Once your power light comes on the best thing to do is wait a few minutes, tubes actually sound best when they are nice and warm from being on a while. Once a few minutes have passed, which oddly enough should give you just enough time to get your guitar and accessories plugged in, you then take the amplifier out of standby mode and rock the night away. This full analog style of amplification sounds warm, thick and is the heart and soul of any, and yes I mean any, vintage guitar, bass or even organ sound. You can tell tube amplification by the distinctive “sag” that occurs behind the notes, they tend to be a little less harsh in tone and not as brittle as its digital counterpart, but at the same time they tend to be a little noisier, more prone to stray frequencies live such as neon lights and dimmer packs and the biggest difference, they are heavier…much heavier. In solid-state amplification there is no down time. You flip a switch and you’re ready to rock. This is because instead of using a series of triode tubes to amplify the signal, solid-state amplifiers use operational amplifier circuits also called “Op-Amps” to take the incoming signal and up the outgoing voltage to rage the eardrums of all around you. Whereas an average tube is quite large, approximately the size of a medicine bottle, in comparison an op-amp is approximately the size of an average piece of Chiclet gum. This allows for the same amplification potential in a much smaller circuit size thereby allowing for not only a smaller, lighter amplifier but one that runs considerably cooler. These are all desirable qualities of regularly used stage equipment. However as opposed to the distinctive “sag” that occurs with an analog tube amp, with a solid-state amp there is no sag. The effect on notes is immediate. Especially when dealing with distorted or overdriven sound. This can make an extremely percussive quality that is very noticeable, especially in music that incorporates staccato rhythms such as heavy metal and hard rock.
IC Chip Vacuum Tube
Now that you have a bit of an understanding of what type of amplification you will want, it is time to choose the configuration of your amplifier. There are basically two options when it comes to this decision, an amp head and cabinet configuration or a combination a.k.a. “combo” amp. The differences between the two are immediately visible. In an amp head and cabinet configuration the amplifier is either contained in its own housing or is a rack mount style piece of equipment that will sit atop or on the side of the cabinet that contains the speakers, usually in a configuration containing anywhere between 4-8 speakers. This is the quintessential rock star guitar rig. From the likes of Jimmy Page to the stage jumping antics of Eddie Van Halen this is usually what people think when they think Rock & Roll. Amps like this are the reason bands have roadies…well that and fetching beer. On the flip side of this coin is the trusty combination or “combo” amp. This is usually what people have in mind when they think guitar practice or church. But don’t let the compact size fool you, though a combo amp may only contain literally one or two speakers they can shred and blow ear drums with the big boys. Amps such as the Fender Twin, Gibson G-50 and Peavey Bandit are famous for their size to sound ratio. These amps are perfect for the regularly gigging musician. While they are easily moved and carried up stairs they offer enough range of volume to play anywhere from a sound delicate fine dining jazz gig to a rowdy bar full of frat kids until 2am. If you are shredding metal under 5,000 watts of strobe lights a combo amp may look a little out of place, but so would a Marshall full stock if you put it in the middle of an R&B stage. The decision of amplifier configuration ultimately comes down to questions of function, form, preference and style.
Solid State Amplifier Vacuum Tube Amplifier
Once you have decided what type of amplifier and configuration you are looking for it’s time to get down the business of power. The power of an amplifier is rated using the electrical measure of watts. The more watts you have the louder you can go…pretty simple right? Well initially yes, but as with everything involving music there are nuances. If you are going for loud clean sound for rhythm guitar or straight bass then sure just a plain old big amp around 100 watts or more will do the trick just fine, all you need is on and up. However if you are a lead guitar player and you want your sound to “break up” when you start to lay into a lead line or want to have a bit more crunch to your chords then you are probably going want to stick to a midrange wattage of around 50-75 watts. “But I wanna wail my solos man!” you say…well no worries my finger flinging friends, here’s the reason. If you have a smaller amplifier it is easier to make the circuit produce natural harmonic distortion which gives you the signature “break up” sound that most guitarists are craving. This is especially true with tube amplifiers. If you are looking for amps for practice and small venues and rehearsal a wattage range of anywhere between 25-50 watts is usually desirable. Remember the more wattage the pounds you get to carry, particularly with tube amps.
Finally we get to speaker size. This is the final part of the amplifier tone equation. When you think of speakers in your amplifier you must think about a few things. What is the amp being used for and do I have to move the amplifier or cabinet. Speaker sizes in amplifiers range from 8-10 inches in practice amplifiers to 10-15 inches in combo amps and speaker cabinets. As mentioned before the amplifier depends a lot on the purpose. I have a 30 watt amp solid state in my studio for practice and a 50 watt tube amp for live performance, both of which have a 12 inch speaker in them. I like 12 inch speakers in cabinets because it has a bit more bite in the mid-range and just enough low end without getting “woofy”. 8-10 inch speakers are usually used in practice amps because they are typically small wattage and used in close quarters and low volumes, it’s much easier to get the range of tones desired with a smaller speaker if you have low wattage. 10-12 inch speakers tend to have a bit more high-mid to low-mid tonal range while 15-18 inch speakers handle much more low end frequency and frequently seen in bass cabinets as well as the bottom sections of full stack guitar systems. Materials of course make a difference, there is everything from traditional paper to Mylar and even Kevlar impregnated fabrics and Hemp woven cones. All have a bit of difference to the discriminating ear but the main difference here is durability gig to gig and longevity over the lifespan of your amplifier. This of course comes down to a matter of personal taste and as any good stage musician and gear head knows…bragging rights. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of knowing your fellow musicians froth at the mouth when you start rattling off your amplifiers vital statistics.
Speakers in a vintage ’68 Fender Bassman Combo Amp
With all of these basic factoids in mind remember that you are investing in vital equipment to further your art. Don’t skimp if you don’t have to and don’t let a sales guy rush you into a decision, the last thing you want is three months down the road to wish you would have gotten an amp with one 12 inch speaker and 50 watts instead of one with two speakers and 50 watts. There is nothing worse than that empty pit feeling while you play knowing that your sought after tone would be that much closer had you only taken a bit more time to try different options. And with that we wish you happy gear hunting and until next time keep your cables wound tight and don’t fall off stage.
The one question I have been asked more than anything by musicians over the years is “How do I sound like that”. While I have understood the question and more than that the desire a musician has to capture a specific tone or sound I had a hard time explaining to them that it truly comes down to a combination of many, many things that make up the ever-quested “Sound” either live or in the studio. It begins of course with musicianship. Hey man let’s admit it, we all can’t be a Jimi Hendrix when it comes to skills, but that does not mean you can’t come close to emulating the sound — with or without the chops. Let’s take a closer look at how tones are achieved. There are truly only three components, aside from talent, involved in crafting one’s sound.
3) Outboard Gear (i.e. pedals, rack mounted effects, etc.)
In this edition we will focus on that which every musician cannot do without: your instrument. I firmly believe that before anyone buys any gear ever they should first know what it is they are buying and why they are buying it. Let’s begin with a quick definition:
in·stru·ment Webster’s Dictionary
: a tool or device used for a particular purpose; especially : a tool or device designed to do careful and exact work
: a device that is used to make music
Now you may say “Hey man, I know an instrument is a device used to make music…DUH!” Well if that’s the case you missed the first definition. Let’s take another quick look at it, because it tells the first part of the story of what our quest entails.
1. “a tool or device used for a particular purpose; especially : a tool or device designed to do careful and exact work”
This is of the utmost importance. If your instrument is of low quality it can be hard to attain the sound we are so ardently searching for. “But I can’t afford a $1,000 guitar”.
No need for that, my friend. As I said, it can be hard, but not impossible. You can get fantastic sound out of just about any guitar or bass with the right arrangement of pick-ups, electronics and other factors. Here are a few guidelines to maintain as you are finding the proper axe to start crafting your tone with.
Make sure first of all that your guitar is comfortable to YOU. That’s right, you could have the best rig in the world and a $5,000 guitar, but if it doesn’t hang just right around you, if it just doesn’t seem to sit on your lap properly, if the fret board feels funny under your fingers and it just doesn’t “resonate” with you or feel like a part of you then the sad truth is, no matter the monetary value you will not enjoy playing it…pure and simple my friends this is where it starts. A perfect example of this is Willy Nelson’s guitar named “Trigger”. It’s an old, beat up classical, with holes literally worn in it. But even though Willy could buy a guitar factory tomorrow he continues to use “Trigger” because he loves it’s sweet dulcet tone and it feels right to him when he plays, nothing more. It just feels right. Don’t be afraid to shop around and find a guitar that clicks with you to start with, it will make all the difference.
From comfort we move into technicalities. Here we are talking about things like the “action” on the neck, the bridge style, fret size, neck leveling and electronics, even the type of wood can affect the sound. The term “action” refers to how the strings rest over the fret board due to the settings of the bridge and saddles. Some people like a high action, which means the strings are lifted higher off of the fret board. Low action means that the strings are very close to the fret board. I prefer my action low (action is literally the guitar equivalent of salting food…everybody likes it a bit different) — consult your local guitar tech and he can make recommendations for you. Fret height is important. The bigger the fret the faster your guitar will intonate, but also the harder chords will be. If you’re a shred guy, you might like big chunky-size frets. I am a rhythm player and personally prefer a smaller, low-profile fret. Again, fret your guitar according to your preference. Finally, we move into the neck leveling. This is very important because it is what is directly responsible for stray sounds such as fret buzz and loss of sustain. The easy way to check neck leveling is to lay the guitar down on a flat surface and bring your eyes to plane with the bridge looking toward the headstock. Pay close attention to the level of the neck under the strings in relation to the butt of the bridge. They should be parallel and the neck should have a slight tapering slope on the left and right edges. If one side seems to be higher than the other, or if you see a dip or rise in the level of the fret board then, my friend, you have a torqued neck. Not to worry though, most guitars are fitted with a truss rod under the name plate or just inside the body which can be used to reset your neck’s alignment. This process of truss rod adjustment is very delicate. One can unseat a truss rod and move into hundreds of dollars of repair trying to do it themselves while trying to save $25-30 at a local tech. DON’T DO IT! Would you try to straighten and set your own dog’s leg or would you go to a vet? These are the moments to spend a few bucks and have it done right, folks. It’s not worth a $150-200 dollar repair and what could be many weeks without your musical friend. Get it done right and you will notice a big difference in your old friend’s playability.
Maple Fret Board Rosewood Fret Board Inspecting the Neck
Finally let’s focus on the last part of the tone in this article: the electronics you have in your guitar. When you are listening to your favorite rocker and find that sweet spot where he digs into the solo just right and your ears say, “There it is – that sound!” Please remember one thing first. The chances of that musician using an off the rack guitar is more than slim, it’s almost non-existent. The fact is the electronics are more than likely custom in some way, shape or form. For example, changing the values of tone capacitors and potentiometers (a.k.a. “pots”) can have a drastic effect on sound. The larger the value the more sound. A 250k pot literally can be ½ as loud as a 500k pot and a .22uf tone capacitor will cut less high end than a .33uf capacitor. When it comes to pick-ups, a lot of things make a difference: the number of pick-ups, single coil vs. Humbucker, the number of switch positions.
Humbuckers Single Coils Active Single Coils
In this example I am replacing the pickups in a Peavey Generation EXP series guitar that I got because it played well, it felt great and I loved the look. I have always wanted a Telecaster, but found them to be a bit too bright and twangy due to the two pick-up design and not always the sound I am looking for. While this guitar has a Telecaster style neck, body and bridge providing the feel of a Telecaster, it maintains a three single coil pick-ups configuration with standard 5-way switching. This means that I have the pick-up configuration and tonal options of a Stratocaster at my disposal. While I love the feel of the guitar, I was always a bit disappointed in the sound of the pick-ups — they were obviously stock and nothing amazing. A good friend of mine named Dave, who is my local ear to the ground in Houston for gear I am searching for, came across a great deal on Craigslist for a pair of Fender custom shop ’57 reissue Telecaster pick-ups for under $100. I went and met him, swapped for the pick-ups (it doesn’t always have to be money out of pocket you know), then made my way back to the shop and got started with the planned upgrade and soon-to-be switch mod on my beloved but rarely played Peavey EXP.
Peavey Generation EXP Proposed Pick-Ups Fender ’57 Custom Shops
I started by removing the strings, followed by the bridge and pickguard, in order to gain access to the gooey insides where the pick-ups live. I then heated up the soldering iron and removed both the bridge and neck pick-ups, making sure to notate in my bench notes which pick-up went to which switch position. This would prove very important for the future switch mod to be done. After disconnecting the stock pick-ups I then mocked up how I would be mounting the pickups and proceeded to place the in the bridge and neck position of the pickguard. They looked very pretty. From here we move to running the wires through the body and soldering the pick-ups into their respective positions on the 5-way switch. After this comes what would normally be the final step of the installation process, which is the reassembly of the bridge and pickguard back onto the body of the guitar and testing the pick-ups’ connectivity. With this done we move onto the final two steps of my guitar’s tone transmogrification.
Strings Removed Removing the Bridge Exposed & Ready
Inspect Connections! Bridge Pick-Up Final Connections
While most Telecaster style pick-ups provide a very bright and high range profile, I prefer my guitars to be a little more on the mellow jazzy side. To achieve this I raise the micro farad (uf) value on the tone pot from the standard value, which on this guitar was .22uf to a larger value of .33uf . Now, while this small value change of .11 may not seem like a lot, it is enough to just get rid of the sharp edges my ears perceive on a typical Telecaster and bring it into the range of my sound as I like it. Finally, to this guitar I decided to add one extra little bonus: a standalone micro toggle switch that, when activated while the standard 5-way switch is in either the neck or bridge position, will allow the opposing pick-up to become active and immediately allow me to have the neck and bridge pick-ups active simultaneously. This is where I chose to emulate part of the tone of my personal axe-slinging favorite: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame. He has had this switch on his legendary black Strat for years and it is an integral part of attaining his classic tone.
Tap the Hole The Magic Switch Install Guard & Jam
So there you have it, the instrument you have been looking for for so long. You don’t have to spend thousands; you just have to be picky enough to know what you’re looking for and yet flexible enough to know that slight flaws and imperfections can be hammered out and tone can be achieved through many facets of your instrument. Next month we’ll explore the second part of crafting your tone: amplification. Until next time, be nice to your neighbors and keep it below eleven.
The Finished Project
~ Christopher Jordan has been a live audio engineer and recording artist for over 15 years and owns AustinHotMods.com an Austin,TX based pedal modification company.~
Hey there friendly neighborhood Mod heads. We hope you enjoyed the last few additions we made to the Austin Hot Mods Family Album page. The new mods are sounding fantastic and we could not keep the newbies rolling off the bench without you and your ever inspiring questions. Speaking of which we have 3 new additions to the site today…one mod and two, yup that’s two new video additions in our Video Library. We just love giving all of your gear freaks out there a behind the scenes look at how it is that we craft our tonal creations. Just follow the link in this post and enjoy as always. As for the new member of the swarm, the all new “Yellow Jacket” mod is a beefed out version of the Boss OS-2 Overdrive/Distortion. With a clearer and wider range of EQ than the stock pedal and our custom transmogrifications to the gain and clipping stage the “Yellow Jacket” to add the right dose of venom into your next solo, to find out more visit the Mods Available page. And finally as promised the new Tips & Tricks section premieres in a couple of days , so don’t forget to stay tuned for the official release to get part one of a three part info-prize…ooooh the suspense is palpable. Until next time kiddos, shred it ‘till your fingers bleed!
~Austin Hot Mods~
Hello fellow tone freaks. We have been building a good head of steam here at Austin Hot Mods. We have been updating some media on the website with our new Tips & Tricks page that will premiere this October with all new articles focused on gear and how-tos to help you get the most out of what you have. In addition to this we are also more than proud to announce that Austin Hot Mods has been picked up as a contributing writer in Austin’s Rockstar Magazine a new publication covering the best in music news, interviews and more. Keep your eyes out around town, they are available at Strait Music and many other locations. We have also been on the bench a ton lately not only modding out and repairing pedals for the likes of good sound fiends like you, but coming up with new mods to keep up with the many requests we are getting…oh and by the way, thanks for the great responses you guys, please keep them coming. It is only through mod requests and questions that we continue to glean the inspiration for the transmogrifications we perform. So here they are, the newest additions to the Austin Hot Mods family…the “Maelstrom Box”, the “Sorcerer Supreme”, the “Extractor” and finally a personal favourite the first in DOD mod to add to the clan the “Sea Monkey”. So there you have it folks, stop on by the Mods Available page to find out all the juicy tonal details of the new transmogrifications. And don’t forget to pick up your copy of Rockstar Magazine today and stay tuned for the all the new stuff come October. Until next time, keep the pick hand moving and try not to annoy the neighbors…
~Austin Hot Mods~