June 27, 2007

Home Recording on the Cheapity Cheap

Eds. Note: All About The Guitar will be on hiatus until Cullen gets settled in his new home. For his last article (for now), Cullen shares with us the gift of homemade music. Enjoy.

Back in 2002, I got a wild hair about doing some home recording. There is and was a lot of information on the Web about how to do it right and economically. Well, I had issues with them.

First, I couldn’t afford to buy any of the equipment they suggested. I couldn’t afford a new sound card, an external input device or really nice recording software like Acid or Pro Tools. Secondly, not only could I not afford to set up a real cheap home studio, I didn’t really want to either. I wanted to see if I could overcome the obstacles given the equipment I had on hand.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comWhat did I have: A computer with the regular accoutrements (a Celeron 400MHz, so no barn burner, though this was 2002), an Ibanez Gi0 guitar, a Dean Playmate bass, a Fender Bullet Reverb practice amp, and Cool Edit Pro multi-track recording software (I also have a Rogue bass amp, but didn’t use it).

So, I had tools. Not great tools, but enough to accomplish the task. For those who are interested in playing around with multi-track recording and don’t have any real experience, Cool Edit is a neat program to use. It’s very user friendly and easy to learn. Cool Edit is now Adobe Audition, but the old 2.1 version is still readily available. There are lots of free audio editing programs out there though. Audigy is great and is something I use now because CE 2.1 won’t install on XP.Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Before I tackled the problem of getting sound into the computer, I decided I needed to find a way to lay down a drum track. It was important to me to get the most realistic sounding drums I could without paying any money for software. I wound up running across a program called DRUMS. I used the demo version (linked at the bottom of the article). It’s a VERY time consuming process to lay down a drum track. BUT, I did discover the ability to copy and paste bars, which sped up the process a bit. If you’re doing a pretty simple song, it’s not that hard. I couldn’t imagine doing something really complex though.

(Editor’s note: I have searched for the DRUMS program again recently and found it. But the newer version is sub-par compared to the version I used 5 years ago. The drums sound far more sampled and not full. Sucks.)

So, I had a drum program, the ability to record the drums (if you have the demo version, you have to play the drum track and record it using an audio recorder on your computer; with the full version you can export directly to WAV), so I decided to play around with the program a bit. I found some neat sample drum beats and quickly laid down a simple pattern with repetitive fills. I used it as a click track to play guitar along with it, and decided I should attempt to lay down guitar and bass tracks.

This created a completely new dilemma. The little Fender has an export port. And I tried to run a line from the “External Speakers” jack into the computer’s Aux. Input and Microphone input. However, I can only assume that the amp’s line must act like a pre-amp or something, because I could never get a usable guitar sound going this route. There was either too much feedback or the signal was not loud enough to be usable.

I had to think around this problem. How could I get a signal that sounds as good as the amp (and that little Fender amp does sound good) into the computer? Then I started looking at the computer’s microphone (the standard one that came with the computer). And I had a moment of inspiration. “What if I mic’d the amp?” I thought.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comHaving a little bit of an idea of acoustics (not much though), I wound up taking a large box and putting the amp into it. I further put two pillows and a quilt in the box to absorb any echo and put the mic barely in the box at a corner opposite the amp. Image hosted by Photobucket.comThis setup, as white-trash fabulous as it may be, worked quite well. I was able to lay down guitar and bass tracks this way and synch it all up in Cool Edit. Took about an hour to do all this (after the drum track was already done). I am not linking to this experiment because it sucks donkey balls. But it proved to me the process was sound.

Now I was cooking. I might have been cooking with an MRE heater, but it was still a form of cooking. I was at a point where I had to decide what I wanted to record. It had to be something simple (because I can play nothing but), but something I liked also. After a few different ideas, I decided on Some Kind of Hate by The Misfits. I chose the song primarily because the drum track was very easy.

Regardless of ease on the drums, it was still a time-consuming process. The demo version of DRUMS does not allow you to save, so if you commit to it, you have to do the whole song at once. I believe it took me two or three hours to get it down. But once I did, the rest of the process was pretty easy.

I did this all at night, after the wife and kids went to bed … this is an important note for later.

After setting all the equipment up (pretty quick when you leave everything prepped, it took maybe 10 minutes) I recorded the guitar track. It’s important to note that you have to keep track of your input and outputs (via your computer’s audio control panel). ‘Cause if you want to use the drum track as a click track, you cannot have to mute the record portion of that input, which I think would be wave. The mic would be Line In or microphone, depending on what all inputs you have.

Amazingly, I got the bass done in one take and it only took two or three takes to get the guitar down. Simple songs are lovely.

I mixed down the guitars and drums and came up with a good sounding instrumental track. I normalized everything and that was a mistake. The short little solo in the middle lost it’s punch and I had to play around with crap for a while to get it right. I finally got it punched up enough, but it never sounded quite right after that. I also added some Chorus and a little more distortion to the track via Cool Edit’s effects. CE’s chorus effects are awesome. I can think of very little music that can’t benefit from Chorus.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comNow came a new problem … vocals. I have a real Nady mic I was going to try to use, but because of the bad sound card, I could get nothing useable. What I did not think of, and, in retrospect I wish I had, was to run the vox through my practice amp. But, I wound up singing dry directly into the computer mic. This didn’t work out very well. Singing through the amp I could have “heard” myself better, not so this way. Plus, it was about 2 or 3 in the morning and I was trying to keep my voice down. So the vox turned out like crap.

I tried a lot of things to punch up the vox, but regardless of what I did, I couldn’t fix the fact that I was flat and lacked dynamic range because I wasn’t singing at my normal volume. So I turned down the vox in the mix and let it ride.

Here is the finished product.

The sad thing is, I did this to prove that I could get a decent-sounding recording given pretty standard equipment that any musician would have. After proving that to myself, I haven’t done any more recording and I wish I would.

Cullen is working hard on a new cover of The Final Countdown.

June 18, 2007

Top 25 All-Time Best Metal Albums - Part 3

The list so far:
25. Testament – Practice What You Preach
24. Deep Purple - Machine Head
23. Van Halen - 1984
22. Anthrax - Among the Living
21. Tool - Lateralus
20. Dokken - Back for the Attack
19. Joe Satriani - Surfing With the Alien
18. Dio - Holy Diver
17. Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss
16. Danzig - Danzig
15. tie Ozzy Osbourne - No Rest for the Wicked and Black Label Society - The Blessed Hellride:
14. Motley Crue - Shout at the Devil:
13. Dream Theater - Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory:
12. Megadeth - Rust in Peace:
11. Guns and Roses - Appetite For Destruction:
10. Judas Priest – British Steel:
9. AC/DC - Back in Black:

Here are the final entries of ultimate metaldom:

ridethelightning.jpg#8 Metallica - Ride the Lightening: I’m kind of upset at putting a Metallica album over a Megadeth album, but hell, it happens. As far as its importance, Ride the Lightening secured Metallica’s name in the lexicon of great metal acts. Sure, Kill ‘em All was a great album, but there were other bands doing similar things, and no one knew if they could follow up KEA with a solid sophomore release. Ride the Lightening shattered doubts and left many screaming for more. There is a feeling that permeates both this album and Master of Puppets. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but it’s in the production quality of the album. It’s not quite perfect, but at the same time, it’s perfectly not perfect. It’s an ambience that does creep up your spine, much as they describe in “Creeping Death.” Personally, I think Metallica got it so right with this album and Puppets, that I have been thoroughly disappointed with everything since.

#7 Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Oz: Blizzard … is a highly influential album for a few of reasons. First of all, it is the first solo Ozzy album. Second, it’s an amazingly good album. Third, it featured guitarist Randy Rhodes who died just a couple of years later. While he also worked on Diary of a Madman, it was this album, for Rhodes and Ozzy, where everything clicked at that “greatest ever” level. Rhodes inspired a new breed of guitarist. His extremely clean, neo-classic style can be heard in guitarists ranging from Yngwie Malmsteen to the guys from Papa Roach. While Eddie Van Halen was probably the first hard rock/metal guitar virtuoso, Rhodes was the first neo-classicist.

sabbathparanoid.jpg#6 Black Sabbath – Paranoid: Wow, it was hard to narrow down what Sabbath album I wanted here. I mean, I knew I wanted #6 to be Sabbath, and I had originally put We Sold our Soul for Rock and Roll, but since that’s a greatest hits album, I decided it was kind of cheating. So, I went with Paranoid on the strength of the title track, War Pigs, Iron Man, and Fairies Wear Boots. Great stuff. These songs probably defined what metal was to become. The use of power chords in minor keys set the mood that would permeate metal albums to this very day. There is probably no band that has been more influential on metal music.

#5 (TIE) Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind and Iron Maiden – Powerslave: There are those who would argue that Number of the Beast is a better album, but they’re wrong. These are my two favorite Maiden albums and I think they best capture the band’s musical and songwriting abilities. Every member of this band is tremendously gifted in what they do and work well together. This #5 spot goes to Iron Maiden in general, really, but I just like these albums a lot more than the other stuff. I think they should probably have called it quits after Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but they keep putting out stuff. If they continue, they’ll probably wind up slipping further down the list.

#4 Pantera – Vulgar Display of Power: There is no album heavier than this. It’s as simple as that. The title is amazingly apt. There was a visceral power to Pantera that very few bands ever possess. Dimebag Darrell’s guitar work is at its best on Vulgar Display … with such powerhouse songs as Walk and This Love shredding your senses. You can feel Phil Anselmo’s anguish as he belts out the vocals. There may be and master_of_puppets.jpgmay have been better musicians than Pantera, but there has never been a band that can make you feel exactly what they are feeling like Pantera could. There has never been a band before or since that can translate a boot to the freaking head like Pantera. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

#3 Metallica – Master of Puppets: Metallica, whether writing fast, aggressive music or more consumer friendly heavy tunes, has always had the knack for coming up with catchy riffs. Songs that stick in your head and are very enjoyable to listen to. Master of Puppets is, to me, their crowning achievement in music writing. The dark side to this is that it was the last album to feature bassist Cliff Burton, who died on the tour for this album. And that fact in no small way effects fans emotions toward this album. However, it doesn’t detract from how good this album is. There is no dull moments, every track from beginning to end is fresh and vibrant and is probably the band’s best-ever mix of musicianship and consumerism.

#2 Megadeth – Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?: It was really hard to put Slayer in the first spot because Peace Sells … is actually my favorite of the top three. However, I felt that Slayer nudged ahead of Megadeth because of that album’s influence on the genre. Megadeth, though, is metal’s maestro. Lead singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine has always had the ability to find some of the best musicians out there and work them well into his compositions. This album features heavy, fast songs with lots of complex melodies and intricate guitar work. The bass line for the title track was intro music for MTV news for many years. If this slayerreigninblood.jpgalbum had the production value of some of Megadeth’s later albums, this would definitely be the #1 album.

#1: Slayer – Reign in Blood: Organizing the top three was probably more difficult than the rest of the list. Each of my top three albums tremendously impacted metal, but Reign in Blood redefined speed metal. At the time, it was faster, heavier, darker and more gruesome than anything before it. Off-key and off-time guitar solos permeate the album, however, in this rare case, instead of detracting, this dissonance added to the strength of the album. Reign in Blood is in many ways still the benchmark against which speed metal music is measured.

So, that’s the list. Suck it, nonbelievers.

Cullen has made his list, and he's sticking to it

I'm All About The Guitar Archives

June 11, 2007

Top 25 All-Time Best Metal Albums Pt. 2

Last week we covered 25 – 16:
25. Testament – Practice What You Preach
24. Deep Purple - Machine Head
23. Van Halen - 1984
22. Anthrax - Among the Living
21. Tool - Lateralus
20. Dokken - Back for the Attack
19. Joe Satriani - Surfing With the Alien
18. Dio - Holy Diver
17. Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss
16. Danzig - Danzig

Here’s 15 – 9:

#15 tie Ozzy Osbourne - No Rest for the Wicked and Black Label Society - The Blessed Hellride: I appreciate everything Ozzy has done for heavy metal. But after Black Sabbath, I think his real talent has been finding really good musicians. The reason that these albums are here is because of the guitar genius of Zakk Wylde. Hade Ozzy not found him Ozzy%20Osbourne%20-%20No%20Rest%20For%20The%20Wicked.jpgin the late ‘80s, he might very well still be languishing in semi-loserville waiting for his VH1 special instead of standing astride a thriving musical empire. Zakk is not only a gifted guitarist, he has one of the most unique sounds in all of music, EVER. You can tell Zakk is playing in fewer than 20 seconds. His guitar tone, scale choices, rhythm style and his signature pinch harmonics (that screaming note that permeates his music) all give him away and it’s a good thing.

No Rest for the Wicked is the real holder of this spot. In my opinion, it is the quintessential Ozzy album. It encapsulates everything that bad recording quality, drugs, inner turmoil and tragedy barred him from earlier in life. He tasted greatness with Blizzard of Oz, and it’s a truly phenomenal album, but I think it’s production values rob it of much that it could have been. Starting with No More Tears and really tearing it up with this album Ozzy and Zakk shred into a new dimension for Ozzy where he could stand on top of the metal world.

BLS shares the spot mainly because I like them so much that I had to mention them. I honestly can’t say what impact they’re having because I’m disconnected with the youth of today. However, based on the popularity of his concerts, how well his albums sell, how many BLS T-Shirts I see around, and the fact that Zakk was on an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it’s a safe bet he’s still a vital force in metal today.

#14 Motley Crue - Shout at the Devil: Yes. Before the term glam metal existed, there was Motley Crue. Progenitors of an age where huge, teased hair and makeup actually made you look tough. But aside from the laughable image, these guys’ sophomore album rocked. It didn’t contain the balls-to-the-wall speed or machine-gun guitar riffs that many other metal bands possessed, but it had a solid, blues-based power coupled with a gifted singer. Each song on here is an anthem to the pagan god of metal -- the aggressive spirit in every twelve-year-old boy looking for some release.

However, Crue’s next album, Theater of Pain, took them down the path of girlie-band sissiness – their only claim to metal being a pumped drum track and a little distortion on their guitar. Maybe they’ve recaptured some of their former hardcoredness during more recent “Get Us Out of Debt” tours, but for one, brief and shining moment, these guys wrote a really good album. Then, my hypothesis, anyway, is that the lifestyle got a hold of ‘em. Oh well, it happens.

dream%20theater.jpg#13 Dream Theater - Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory: This is actually my all-time favorite album. However, in the interest of the list, it’s down further than I’m comfortable putting it. In fact, this is such a personal choice, that it’s higher than most people would put it. Most folks would have Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime in this spot. However, since Queensryche is, or was, rather, progressive metal, I put DT here because they completely and in every way pwn Queensryche.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Dream Theater in my youth. I’ve only gotten into them in the past few years, but they have fast become my favorite band. Dream Theater has made a name for themselves by producing intricate compositions, being some of the most skilled musicians in the world, and writing catchy songs on top of amazing time signatures that change as often as a woman changes her mind. This album in particular is amazing evidence of all of that and is a great concept album.

#12 Megadeth - Rust in Peace: Holy crap this album rocks! Blisteringly fast, amazingly complex solo work and some of the tightest production levels ever (EVER) heard. From this album forward, Dave Mustaine set a standard for the studio that few bands have ever met. I remember, it was around the time of Countdown to Extinction that there was all this debate going on how there was actually more sound to an analog track than there was to digital and how digital – the compact disc, mind you – format was dryer or wasn’t as full as analog sound. Well, the debate rages on, but anyway, MTV had a spot on it. And Neil “Crazy Horse But Dumb As A Box of Rocks” Young was on talking about how horrible the CD format was, etc. They cut to a spot of Dave Mustaine who said (and I paraphrase): Digital recording is amazing. If you don’t like it, you can’t play. How freaking awesome if that? He’s saying, guess what, you know what all that freaking noise you’re hearing is, it’s your sloppy effin’ playing. You can hear it now instead of it being disguised by that old freaking super-forgiving analog recording.

I digress. I could spends posts upon posts talking about recording quality and how the human ear can’t even possible discern the differences they’re talking about (in the sample rates, not quality of sound), but I’ll just get mad.

megadeathrustinpeace.jpgBack to RIP … this album is amazing! When it came out, I wore the tape out in about two weeks. I had to record a copy from a friend after that. I tried like mad to try and learn how to play songs off it, but it was too damn complex for me. Still is. I mean, if you have any doubts about Megadeth’s musical abilities, listen to this album, it’s damn near progressive metal. These guys pull no punches in speed or complexity of composition. Of course, when the track calls for it, the lay down some simple riffs also. It’s a matter of taste and Mustaine knows how to write a tasty lick. Can you tell who’s one of my favorite bands?

I remember the first time I saw the video for this album on MTV. It was great to watch Marty Friedman (who I had dug from his days with Cacophony) and Mustaine swap solos. There wasn’t anything to the video except them playing the song, and that was awesome.

Guys like Savatage had been doing this kind of melodic metal for a bit before Megadeth released RIP, but there’s always been something hokey about their stuff … I don’t know. Megadeth just got something right and all these high-musical-ability bands have been playing catch up since.

#11 Guns and Roses - Appetite For Destruction: Sure, you can pull out the “Where are they now?” card, but during the ‘90s these guys ruled the airwaves. Everyone wanted to play a Les Paul like Slash. This album really gelled with the public though. I think it was so strong that its popularity actually carried their next couple of releases (which may have had a couple of good songs, but only a couple). This album was so strong. Every song rocked as appropriate and balladed when appropriate. It latched on the world’s collective sense of what heavy metal/hard rock should be and put it out there on a platter. To this day I am hard-pressed to think of an album where every single song was THIS good. Production levels high, every bit of every song seemed just so right, and all the musicians gelled together. Bands that lock together this well simply don’t last, or they put out as much crap as they put out good stuff. Too bad Velvet Revolver sucks so hard. We don’t need no Chinese Democracy.

JPbritishsteel.jpg#10 Judas Priest – British Steel: Another difficult choice because Screaming for Vengeance was very good. But, come on, “Breaking the Law” is on British Steel. What Priest song has had more play and is more influential than that? “Living After Midnight” is also a hell of a song. I kind of hate to admit this, but I’m not that big of a Priest fan. Their influence and musical ability is undeniable, but I’ve always been rather pissed at their production quality. Here you have one of the arguably biggest metal bands ever and their recordings sound like they were recording inside of cardboard boxes. People always tell me, “Well consider the time frame and the equipment they had to work with.” Well, you know what? Screw you! The Ramones, hell The Sex Pistols were recording in the same time frame, with lower budgets and their production quality has always been spot fucking on. Why does this piss me off so much? Because every Judas Priest album up to Painkiller was mixed where Rob Halford’s voice sounding tinny and the guitars sounded ball-less lacking low end. Just think if there was a fullness to the recording … this shit would have stomped any other band around. So, why are they #10 if I bitch about them so much? Because even with the crappy recordings people still sing their shit and they influenced almost every metal band that came after them.

#9 AC/DC - Back in Black: Hard choice between this one and Highway to Hell, but in terms of importance to the genre, no one can argue which album everyone has heard. A mega-mega-mega great selling album, there are songs on this album that are engraved on tombstones across the world. This is the album that urban legends get based on … (must assume a stoner voice in your head, think Spicoli) “You know that wreck they found the other day? You know, the one where dude had missing for like, a week … Well, the paramedics arrived on scene and Back in Black was in the stereo and it was still playing!” “No way!” “Way.”

The fact that the mass market has accepted AC/DC does not diminish their impact on the genre. Just means they’ve aged well. Or that they need to retire.

Next week we finish up the list.

Agree? Disagree? Rosebud?

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

June 4, 2007

Top 25 All-Time Best Metal Albums

I originally wrote this list about a year and a half ago. I was asked by one of my blog’s regular visitors to compile a top metal album list, so I complied. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would, but I was pretty happy with the results.


bbms.gifWhen I first started thinking about how to go about compiling the list, I thought I’d just narrow down my top 25 and put them “in no particular order.” Though, I guess that’s kind of cheating. So, I have decided to commit to a list. My criteria were threefold: What did this album mean to metal? What did this album mean to me? Did it really rock?

I mean, think about it. There are albums out there that people go on and on about how important it was. But, when you finally get to sit down and listen to it, it sucks. So, if I left off one of your favorite metal albums, it probably sucks. Also, I guess I should add – as though you couldn’t guess – that there’s nothing subjective to this list. This is my opinion, but I am entirely right.

I was going to hyperlink the entries to their Wikipedia page or something and have pics and all that, but I didn’t.

Starting with #25 to #16.

Here we go.

#25 Testament - Practice What You Preach: I’m not sure how I discovered Testament, but I had their first four albums. Not only was their music good, but it was fun also. They really skipped around the extremes of the genre, topic-wise, singing about everything from demons and the devil to the environment and the human condition.

What really made Testament a great band, to me, was Alex Skolnick’s guitar playing and how well the rest of the band aligned to his style. Skolnick went on to form his own jazz group but he still plays with Testament on occasion as well as subbing in on guitars in Savatage and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But these guys made fantastic music that lives on in the best of today’s metal.

#24 Deep Purple - Machine Head: Duh, duh, duh! Duh! Duh! Duh-duh! Duh, duh, duh! Duh … Duh-duh! -- the best known chord progression in rock and roll. Ritchie Blackmore and crew really wrote some great stuff back in the day. They are equals with Rush in their influence on heavy progressive rock. I must say that I like their most recent incarnation with Steve Morse on guitar. I’ve always been a fan of the Dixie Dregs and the Steve Morse Band, so it was cool to see him six slinging with Deep Purple.

#23 Van Halen - 1984: This was a hard one, and further down the list than it should perhaps be. One of the reasons this is ranking toward the end of my top 25 is that I have a hard time thinking of Van Halen as heavy metal, even though they arguably are the granddaddies of most modern metal acts. In fairness, I felt that if I put Crue and Dokken on the list, I needed to put Van Halen on there also.

Some may disagree with my choice of album, but this album was better known and more influential than any other VH production. It was also the last to feature David Lee Roth.

Eddie Van Halen is responsible for so many of the things rock and roll guitarists do today. He popularized the Floyd Rose double locking tremolo system which allows those "dive bombing" guitar notes. It is because of Van Halen that you could no longer just "know how to play guitar" and be successful. After Eddie, you had to be a great guitarist. Then Randy Rhodes appeared and the two of them set the guitar playing world on its ear. There may have been experimental guys doing some of this stuff (Robert Fripp, perhaps?) but this was mainstream stuff! These albums were going gold and platinum.

Van Halen always seems heavier than I remember. Every time Hot For Teacher cranks up I think, "Oh yeah, Van Halen rocks."

dokken.jpg#22: Anthrax - Among the Living: Anthrax is a mainstay metal band to this day (in fact, they are back to their original lineup). It is unfortunate that their chosen name became controversial in recent years, but they have always stomped. And that is the best description of Anthrax’s tunes – music to stomp by.

Scott Ian (now a regular on whatever VH1 "Remember" show is playing) has a knack for writing these circular sounding rhythms that pound away at you. Just as you become accustomed to the rhythm, they change the pace with some blistering speed. Danny Spitz has always been one of the most off-the-wall lead guitarists. He obviously knows what he’s doing but plays off time, off key and discordant. Vocalist Joey Belladonna, drummer Charlie Benante and bassist Frank Bello are equally solid. Bello is especially memorable as he follows in the footsteps of amazing Maiden bassist Steve Harris.

Among the Living has excellent tracks on it like the title track, Caught in a Mosh and I Am the Law.

#21: Tool - Lateralus: I love these guys for the music they produce. I think they’re the best band that came out of the ‘90s produced. However, I hate them for the music and musicians they have inspired. Emo most certainly predates them, but Tool gave the Emo genre a shot of caffeineadrenalinecrack in the ass. They have also inspired a plethora of “minimalist” musicians who for some ungodly reason think that playing one note for 20 freaking minutes is somehow cool.

But Tool makes great music. I cannot believe how good their effing drummer is. Danny Carey is a kook, but he is unbelievably good. Listen closely to Lateralus and you’ll swear that he’s multitracked some of his drums. But its just him playing. There is some amazing polyrhythm going on here. What he does is essential to Tool’s sound and power.

#20: Dokken - Back For the Attack: Once again straying into hair metal here, but Dokken served one blazing album with Back …. Their previous and later albums lacked the vitality of this entry. Something here really clicked. I think part of the problem with Dokken is that you had two very strong and distinct musical personalities attempting to dominate the spotlight. Don Dokken is a great singer and George Lynch is a great guitarist and they both wrote some good songs. But they butted heads often and it eventually led to their break up. Lynch went on to do some cool things with his own band The Lynch Mob and later with Dokken again.

Great tracks on the album include Lynch’s instrumental Mr. Scary (which is what really cemented his status as a guitar hero among a throng of pretenders), Prisoner, and Dream Warriors which was the title track for the third installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. A bit of trivia about that: For the video, Lynch was playing a skull and bones guitar. This guitar, in the video, had a neck by guitar manufacturer ESP. However the guitar was built by J. Frog (click here to see J. Frog guitars carried by Ed Roman Guitars and read more about the story). At the time (and currently) Lynch was sponsored by ESP and they threw a fit about him using a different guitar in the video. So he had to switch necks. This caused a huge stink and many folks thought ESP was making this guitar. They eventually did produce some, but far inferior to the J. Frog original.

#19: Joe Satriani - Surfing With the Alien: The only instrumental album on the list. I tend to think that instrumentals can’t really compete against the bands with singers in heavy metal. Metal requires a singer to really give the song the depth and placement it needs. However, there are exceptions. Surfing With the Alien is the album that made guitar-based instrumental rock cool again. There were bands and musicians that were doing it before, there are some who do it better, but no one has had the impact on instrumental guitar rock that Satriani has. He taught Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, George Lynch and a litany of other guitar slingers. This is his main legacy in the field, not so much what he has written (though that is profound and powerful also) but how he has inspired others to new levels.

#18: Dio - Holy Diver: I am no big fan of Dio, but his impact on the genre is undeniable. He popularized the operatic style of metal singing and is almost as iconic as Ozzy Osbourne. It’s fitting, I guess, as he filled frontman position in Sabbath after the Ozzman’s departure. Holy Diver is Dio’s best entry and is very listenable, even though I’ve always felt that Ronnie James has always sounded like an angry elf.

#17 Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss: There are those who would argue that this is actually the best Slayer album, And they could make a strong argument. I guess with Seasons … Slayer finally put out the album that had been stewing in their collective minds for many years. You can tell that there’s a sense of collective relief and joy on their part within the music. An artists pride is evident the quality of what they produce.

danzigathf.jpg#16 Danzig - Danzig: Again a somewhat personal choice. There are plenty of bands from this era that had a similar sound to Danzig’s blues-based metal (though his sound has changed in recent years). But Glenn Danzig is important to metal primarily because of his punk band The Misfits. Their sound significantly impacted many of the early ‘80s LA metal bands – Metallica primarily.

This album is probably his best work under his own name. It’s a solid, blues-rock album and has some good jams on it. He has since become a parody of the things he sings about in his songs. Too bad, really.

Well, that’s the first part of the list. Agree, disagree or comment.

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

May 28, 2007

Memorial Songs

Memorial Day is a very important holiday to me and my family. I am a third-generation military member. My father retired Air Force. One grandfather served shipboard in WWII, and was close to Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed the port. His ship was, in fact, supposed to have been there, but was delayed getting back. My other grandfather was also in the Navy but was an aircraft mechanic.

Putting aside petty political differences, we all recognize that the freedoms we enjoy in the United States were secured for us by brave men and women who died in our nation’s service. It is, in that light, perhaps a bit trite to fire up the grill and enjoy some time with our loved ones. But, knowing military folks the way I do, I think those who’ve gone before us wouldn’t want us to do much else.

Regardless of the context the author intended when he wrote it, the following George Orwell quote is true to the heart of Memorial Day: We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

In that vein, and because my column is guitar/music centric, I ask the following: What are your favorite heroic/military songs? Why? What’s your story?

Here’s mine:

At my first duty station, the base S-2 (security officer) was this old, grizzled civilian guy. He was a retired first sergeant or sergeant major. He had done his time and was living out his days in the relative relaxation that a small Army post on a small semi-tropical Pacific island can afford.

CanonSalute.jpgEveryone on post knew the security guy. He was well-liked and loved by many of the civilian and local national employees who’d worked with him for nearly, and in some cases, over a decade.

He passed away about halfway through my tour there. Only did then those of us who knew him in passing learn just how awesome this guy was. The old man was a highly decorated Special Forces soldier (a “green beret”) and Vietnam Vet. There was a memorial service held at the post chapel. Being one of the two journalists on our installation, I covered the ceremony.

There was the normal military memorial service kind of stuff – 21-gun salute (7 guns, 3 shots each), a prayer from the chaplain and some kind words from someone who knew him well. What was a bit out of the norm for this ceremony was that they played some music toward the end of the ceremony. They played the Ballad of the Green Beret, an a cappella version that was very touching. In John Wayne’s The Green Berets the song is like a war anthem. It urges you to action. Here, it was moving and full of emotion. The singers didn’t really change the way the song was sung, just the lack of music and environment cast the song in a new light.

The Ballad of the Green Berets

Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret.

Silver Wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret.

Trained to live off nature's land
Trained in combat, hand to hand
Men who fight by night and day
Courage picked from the Green Beret.

Silver Wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret.

Back at home a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
Leaving her his last request.

Put Silver Wings on my son's chest
Make him one of America's best
He'll be a man they'll test one day
Have him win the Green Beret.

So, again, got any stories?

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

May 21, 2007

Twist of Daisy

I wanted to do something a little different this week, so here’s my first-ever vlog:

See. Right there. Vlog. Cullen gets technology in action. I'm all impressed

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

May 14, 2007

There’s A Tear In My Beer

Be it a particularly poignant wail of a guitar, the subject matter of a particular tune, or the memories associated with the music, certain songs hit home a bit more than others.

THM_CryingCB01.jpgSo, as part of a guilty pleasure/full confession, I ask, what songs make you cry?

Not cry in pain or shame over how horribly awful the song is or how much you used to like that Michael Jackson song when you were in 5th grade. No, what song(s) wrenches your guts? What song(s) make you stop and think about the past, or stop and think about where you’re at in your life?

I hate to get maudlin on you, but this subject hit me the other day when I heard the one song that’ll send me to tears faster than anything – Conway Twitty’s “That’s My Job.” I don’t know exactly why, but for me this song is like a freaking switch for my tear glands. Conditioned response or something, I’m not sure. I guess I really identify strongly with the subject matter and now I feel this way both for my own dad and for my children.

There have been other songs at certain times that may have caused a catch in my throat, but this is the only song that gets me every time.

So, what are yours? Come on, we’re all friends here. Or, we’re all ready to laugh at you for crying over a song you damn crybaby.

Cullen also cries when he hears the theme from "Gunsmoke" so he ain't no sissy

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

May 7, 2007

Like A Rocket: Jamming with the Reverend

Dallas, Deep Ellum, actually, is home to one of the best guitarists in music today, Jim Heath. Better known to the masses as The Reverend Horton Heat.

I had been a casual listener of the Revered for the past few years, but it's kind of silly how I decided to pick these guys up again for the critical listen a few months ago. Boston Market started using their Eat Steak song from their 1991 album Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em, in a new advertisement. I couldn't get the bit they play on the commercial out of my head so I needed to burn through some albums and flush my system with them again.

The first time I ever heard The Rev was in 1994. They played the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, opening up for Soundgarden. There was another band who played first, called UMI (from Australia, I believe). Oh, man UMI was bad, bad, bad, and didn't fit in with the rest of show. I'll get to The Rev in a moment, but Soundgarden also put on a surprisingly poor show. They were touring on their Superunknown album. It was amazingly well-received and the arena was full of teeny boppers who only knew Soundgaren for Black Hole Sun. It wasn't the crowd they wanted. At one point, just as guitarist Kim Thayil was about to break out into the fantastic solo for the song Superunknown, someone threw their flannel shirt onstage and it landed right on his guitar. Horrible. That pretty much set the mood for their entire set.

I felt so bad for them. I wanted a high-energy show. The guys in the band were not enthusiastic at all and it showed.

However, the middle band, The Reverend, was amazing. Spending most of my life in the south, I’d heard plenty of rockabilly and I was really into punk, but I had never before heard punkabilly. They shocked me. Being a metal/punk/grunge bigot (at the time), it was kind of hard to understand why they were at this show. They really didn't fit the Soundgarden sound and they were heavily country influenced -- anathema to me at the time. But, seeing them play live, you couldn't deny their musical virtuosity and verve. They were great.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't go out and pick up any of their tapes. I didn't look into them any further ... UNTIL you flash forward about 4 or 5 years. I'd joined the Army, pulled a 3-year tour in Okinawa and was stationed in Arizona. Most of the pals I make there were of the skate punk, neo-swing, punk, bowling shirt wearing, former goth crowd. Not fully my scene, but I could understand them. And, I got introduced to some bands that I now dig, but at the time hadn't heard. One night, watching the Drew Carey Show, I saw The Reverend Horton Heat pop up playing a rival band to Drew’s band -- "Oh, man," I thought. "I know them!"

Seeing them on the show was a catalyst. The next time I was over at one friend's place, I asked him if he had any of their albums. He had both It's Martini Time and Spaceheater. I absorbed them both and bought them myself. Over time I got their entire catalog.

Just look at him here plucking away on his Gretsch. It's awesome. He is so in his element playing live on a big Jazz-style guitar.

He's fast. He's adept. He's classy. The Rev may stick to pretty "normal" rockabilly style sound and scales, but he does it with his own feel. He throws in some odd notes and phrasing that makes it his own.

Many thanks to Boston Market for inspiring me to give them a critical listen again last year. They’re seldom far away from my CD player these days:

Eat steak, eat steak eat a big ol' steer

Eat steak, eat steak do we have one dear?

Eat beef, eat beef it's a mighty good food

It's a grade A meal when I'm in the mood.

Cowpokes'll come from a near and far

When you throw a few rib-eyes on the fire

Roberto Duran ate two before a fight

'Cause it gave a lot of mighty men a lot of mighty might

Eat steak, eat steak eat a big ol' steer

Eat steak, eat steak do we have one dear?

Eat beef, eat beef it's a mighty good food

It's a grade A meal when I'm in the mood.

And with that, Cullen's life was changed completely by the low-flyin' planes

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

April 30, 2007

I Got Wood

Wood for your guitar. This is a highly complex and emotionally charged topic for guitar players and builders. Some people try to use physics to explain the uses of wood, others use mojo. Some build for economy, others build for looks. I simply cannot go into all the ins and outs of this topic, there isn’t the space and I don’t have the time. Here, I’m only going to talk about the basics and only cover electric guitars.

The wood chosen for a guitar is pretty important for a variety of reasons. A wood’s strength is a primary concern. How well it can be worked – carved and shaped -- into the guitar is another. How the wood looks and adds to the aesthetics of the guitar is another huge issue. How wood affects the sound of the guitar is perhaps the most contentious issue and that’s where you’ll hear about the “mojo.”

All of the building materials for a guitar, wood especially, directly effects the vibration of the strings and their resonance -- which directly effects the quality of the sound. This is especially true of an acoustic guitar since you're hearing raw sound -- naked wood, as it were. In an electric, the pickup does all the work and it is (generally) not microphonic. That is, the pickup doesn't "pick up" the sound of the strings, it picks up the vibration of the strings. This vibration creates a signal in the pickup which is translated to sound.

Something that complicates building is that the same wood may not produce the same, consistent effects. You might think then that any wood of similar resonant frequency should create guitars that sound the same. Well, I don't know why, but it's not true. Anybody can pick up an Alder body Fender Strat and a Basswood body Strat and hear a subtle difference in tone and color even though the two woods are very similar in grain, weight and resonant frequency. If you ever want to test this out for yourself a Strat is a great guitar to use, because they are essentially an assembly line, cookie-cutter product. One of them is going to be very similar to another.

What makes this subject even more complex is when you begin to realize that two guitars, using the same wood, with the same hardware and electronics and similar finishes sound different. Even wood from the same tree isn't necessarily the same. Some is denser, some has tighter grain -- it's a crapshoot. But there are some generalities and I'm going to list some of my favorites woods here and some of their supposed tonal qualities:

quiltedmaple.jpgQuilted or Curly Maple: Quilted Maple is a rock maple tree that has a wavy or curly appearance. No one knows for sure why the trees get this look. Maple is a heavy wood and the non-figured rock maple is usually used in guitar necks. Quilted maple, along with it's cousin flamed or tiger-stripe maple, is used primarily as tops for guitars.

pic01_05.jpgThe majority of the guitar body will be made with a different wood like mahogany and the quilted maple will just be a cap. If the cap is thick enough, it will effect the sound of the guitar. However, there are lots of guitar companies that only use a thin maple veneer top. This looks pretty, but doesn't do anything to the sound. Thick maple caps can really brighten up the tone of a guitar.

This guitar is a beatiful example of quilted maple in use on a JET guitar. The figured maple really pops out once stained and polished. Depending on the color used it can look like flames or wavy water. Beautiful stuff.

Spalted maple: Spalted maple is actually wood that has begun to decay. The cool lines and firguring seen in the wood is fungus attacking the grain. This leads to spectacular looking lines and figures throughout the boards. It almost looks like someone has drawn on the wood, but this is all natural. spalt23.jpg

qsgbodsm45.jpgAs with other figured maples, spalted maple is primarily used as a cap on a guitar body. However, spalted maple cannot really be used for anything else. It has a brittle structure and is not strong enough to be used for anything that could put strain on it. It looks gorgeous though, and you can get all kinds of figuring. This guitar is one of Ed Roman's Quicksilver bodies, and I think the spalt looks like a collection of fall leaves. But you can get figures that look like lightening strikes or just random lines. It's truly gorgeous and rare. The sound quality is similar to that of other maple caps.

Black Walnut: Is a gorgeous, dark, "wood looking" wood. You can occasionally find some figuring in walnut, but it tends to be pretty normally grained. Walnut is heavy and it's tonal properties are similar to mahogany -- rich, deep and very resonant. It's a very strong wood and easy to work. It's expensive because gunmakers like to use it for gun stocks; cabinet makers and hard-wood floor makers also use it extensively. This, of course, drives up the market price.

Here is a guitar I really lust after. It's by Jaros Guitars. It's got most of what I love in a guitar; it has an ebony fretboard, a cool but simple fretboard inlay, it's walnut and it has a tune-o-matic bridge. If the hardware was chrome or nickel I'd probably have to rob a bank.

Bubinga: Bubinga is a gorgeous, red-tinted wood. It is referred to as African Rosewood, even though it's not of the rosewood species.

I've seen it used in a lot of different ways – as a top cap, as accent stripes in the neck or body, and as entire guitar bodies. It is very heavy and has a deep, dense sound. The thicker the piece of bubinga used, the better suited it is for a bass guitar. Caps are great for a regular six string.

The guitar is one of Ed Roman's Abstract guitars.

Purpleheart: The last wood I'm going to talk about today is Purpleheart. It is one of my favorite woods because it's purple and just how often do you see that? Purpleheart is amazingly heavy and dense. If you see a guitar made mostly of Purpleheart and want to buy it, start lifting weights. Sometimes Purpleheart is used for a neck and even that is enough to throw a guitar's balance off. So, most of the time, you see PH used as accent stripes though the neck or body. Sometimes folks make guitar knobs out of it. You can see on this Alembic guitar how they've worked PH into the guitar body providing beautiful contrast in the woods. I have no idea how PH sounds as I've never seen a guitar made out of enough of the stuff to give me a PH "vibe." I've played some with accents and it is a gorgeous, tight grained wood. Even Ed Roman's site doesn't say too much about it. He does say it makes good fingerboard wood and that makes sense, although I've never seen it in person.

There are literally thousands of species of wood out there that have been used for guitar manufacture. I could write a book on it, as others already have.

As much as I like listening and playing to guitar, I really love looking at the art that they are. I’d hang ‘em on the wall before I’d hang a Picasso.

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

April 23, 2007

My Top 10 Greatest Rock and Instrumentals List

A little more than a year ago, I ran a contest on my blog. I published a list of about 120 rock instrumentals and said I was going to compile a top-10 list from that larger list. It was a lot of work to both compile all those songs and to narrow my list down to 10 – but I did.

As for the contest, I had my readers choose their own top 10 from my list and whoever’s list was closest to mine won. I ripped a CD of all the listed songs. Dean Esmay was the winner, and in his post here makes some very valid points about my master list. But anyway, here is my top 10 and a slightly edited version of the original post.

Man. This was harder than I thought it was going to be. I found it near impossible to limit this list to just 10 songs, but, somehow I did it.

To offer some explanation as to how I came about with my results, I followed a few different criteria. First, I asked myself, just how catchy is the song? How listenable and re-listenable is the song? Then I asked, how complex is the song? How much musical ability is evidenced in the tune? I then asked how influential is the song is. How many places have I heard this song? How many musicians do I know or have heard of that list this musician/song as an inspiration?

Last on my list of criteria is how much do I like the song? You know, there might have been some songs that should have been on my master list that weren't there, but it's my list. If you don't like it, make your own contest.

So, without further ado, here's the list (click on the title for a 20-40 second clip of the song):

cliff_burton.jpg10. Orion - Metallica

What can be said about this song that hasn't already? It's the definitive metal instrumental. It was played at their first bassist, Cliff Burton's funeral.

The album topped at #29 in The Billboard 200, but no songs from the album hit the charts.

9. Stream of Consciousness - Dream Theater

As big a fan as I am of Dream Theater, it should be no surprise that I chose one of their songs for the list. I do feel they deserve it though. As far as influence, every progressive band that has come out in the past 10 years lists DT as an influence. As far as musical ability, well, I am of the opinion that there are none better, as a band.

It was still a hard decision to narrow it down to one song. I love Overture 1928, but I felt that this song edged it out musically. I also almost chose Liquid Tension's When the Water Breaks for sheer musicality, but just wasn't well-known enough. At 11 minutes and 16 seconds SoC offers a tour de force trip though a variety of styles, sometimes whimsical, always very Dream Theater.

The album Train of Thought topped out at #53 on The Billboard 200.

8. Journey of the Sorcerer - The Eagles (The link has been killed since the original post, sorry but I didn’t have the time to repost*)

I had to put this entry in here. While it is certainly a good song, the real reason it is on this list is because I'm a HUGE Douglas Adams geek and no instrumental Top 10 list is complete without this song, in my opinion. So, as stated earlier, it's my list, dammit!

The album One of These Nights topped the Pop Albums charts at #1 in 1975. Lying Eyes off the album won a Grammy that year.

7. Walk Don't Run - The Ventures

A great story from Wikipedia's entry on the Ventures:

The story behind their selection of Walk Don't Run provides some insight into the distinction between technical virtuousity, versus the essential elements of a wildly successful Pop-Music hit. Bob Bogle, original lead guitarist, cites Chet Atkins as one of his early influences. Bogle bought the Chet Atkins LP, Hi Fi Guitar which featured Atkins' fingerstyle rendition of a song originally written by the great jazz guitarist, Johnny Smith. Within Atkins' elaborate and laid-back delivery of "Walk Don't Run", Bogle found inspiration. He stated years later there was no way his "pedestrian" guitar skills would allow him to play it the same as Chet Atkins did, so he and Wilson worked out a highly energized, very much simplified arrangement, and a Rock & Roll Classic was born! Another Chet Atkins inspired guitarist covered "Walk Don't Run" on his album Quantum Guitar in 1998, none other than Yes guitarist Steve Howe.

6. Wipe Out - The Surfaris (Dead link, ref above *)

Billboard.com's short bio on the Surfari's says this about Wipe Out:

...the number two 1963 hit that ranks as one of the great rock instrumentals, featuring a classic up-and-down guitar riff and a classic solo drum roll break, both of which were emulated by millions (the number is no exaggeration) of beginning rock & rollers.

It's that influential. What more can you really say, except to add a Jeff Spicoli influence, "Whoa!"

5. Classical Gas - Mason Williams (Dead link, ref above *)

What a big sounding song! At first you almost think it's going to be some medieval throwback and then it just kicks it open. A huge song that is greatly composed.

The song won three Grammy awards in 1968 and was again a hit in 1987 when Williams re-recorded the song with Mannheim Steamroller.

4. Little Wing - Stevie Ray Vaughn

I can't say anything better about this song than Dean Esmay said in the comments section at his place:

"But I'd say that 'Little Wing' is his single greatest accomplishment instrumentally. It's amazing that they kept it in a vault and only released it posthumously. It's simply astounding from start to finish, and exceeds any cover of that song I've ever heard, including both the Derek &The Dominos version(which I love) or Jimi's own original.

And by the way, occasionally I hear some snotty punk say Stevie was 'just a hot dog.' All I can do is ask them to listen to "Little Wing" and then ask them to explain that."

The song charted at #26 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks Billboard in 1992. Two years after his death.

5.booker.t.jpg3. Green Onions - Booker T and the MGs

As the house band as Stax Records, Booker T and the MGs can be heard on some of the most influential soul and RB albums of the '60s. But what is perhaps more important is the instrumental work they did. Green Onions is one of the most listenable, catchy tunes ever written. This is due in large part to Steve Cropper's economical guitar work and Booker T. Jone's floating organ playing. A testament to taste and ability, this song is a vital part of our musical compendium.

The song topped out at #3 on the Pop Charts in 1962, but hit #1 on the Black Songs charts.

2. Sleep Walk - Santo and Johnny (performed by Joe Satriani)

How hauntingly beautiful is this song? Once you hear it, it sticks with you and remains infinitely listenable. A slow, jazzy, in the mood kind of song.

Released in 1959, the song reached #1 on the Billboard charts in August of that year and again in 1982 for Larry Carlton.

1. Frankenstein - Edgar Winters Group

How often do you hear this song on classic rock stations? Even if you don't know the name of this song, you've been inspired by it. Not only is this a very serious musical number, it's fun but not to the point of frolicking. To me, it is the very definition of the rock instrumental. It immediately sets the theme and there is some great interplay between the different instruments without getting tiring.

Released in 1973, this Billboard #1 song is as vital today as it ever was.


So that’s the list I came up with. What would you guys list?

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

April 16, 2007

Fretting Over The Board

Most guitars you've seen have dots as position markers along the fret board. It's not the most obvious place for a musician or guitar owner to express themselves, but it's one of the places that has some of the best artwork available.

Perhaps you've seen the guitars that have "shark tooth" inlays or perhaps even something more outlandish. The following are some of my favorites and range from mild variation of dot markers to outright garish.

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This eclipse inlay is probably the one I would have if I could afford a custom-built guitar. It's simple, uncluttered but still neat. I really like it.

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My next favorite is this double helix. However, without good side position markers, I'm sure I would get lost on the fret board. Cool looking though, huh?

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I adore this inlay. I can't imagine how long this must have taken. It's gorgeous (and I love tigers). There's no way I could play this. This would the kind of guitar I would buy to display. And believe me, if I had that kind of money, that's exactly the kind of thing I would be doing.

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Lastly ... well, there's a point where there's just too much. In my opinion these guys crossed it a while ago. However, this is a very popular, well, common anyway, design on JET guitars. It's a jungle scene with parrots, if you can't make it out.

All these images are from Ed Roman Guitars. His inlay gallery has some great examples of what's available out there.

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

April 9, 2007

The Vibrato Tremolo

Every decade or so something comes along that changes the way people approach playing the guitar, and, because of it's central focus in most popular music, it changes the way many genres of music are played. The tremolo bridge is one of those changes.

A tremolo bridge holds the strings at the tail end of the guitar, usually has a tremolo arm and allows the guitar player to apply a varying degree of vibrato to a note or chord by using the arm to apply or relieve the tension on the strings. Interestingly, what we call a "tremolo" is actually a "vibrato." Vibrato is a change in pitch where a tremolo is a change in volume. But, way back in the day, Leo Fender patented a unit for the Stratocaster called the synchronized tremolo and we've called it that ever since.

The first commercially successful tremolo/vibrato unit was the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. It incorporates a spring loaded tremolo arm, or whammy bar that controls the tension of a bar that crosses all six strings. The bar raises or lowers to release or increase tension on the strings causing the pitch to lower or rise.

There are some downsides to the Bigsby unit. First, the change is pitch is relatively moderate. When first introduced, rockabilly players used them to add vibrato to their melodies. But as people sought more extreme pitch changes, the Bigsby couldn't really deliver. Second, raising notes by pushing down on the arm was no problem, but lowering notes by pulling up became an issue. When pulling up too high, the spring could fall out.

Despite these problems, the Bigsby is a popular unit and is still used on many classic hollow-body rockabilly guitars and special model Les Pauls and the like.

However, Due to these problems, Leo Fender created the synchronized tremolo which popularized the term tremolo (Leo was an engineer, not a musician).

Rather than simply screwing to the top of the guitar, the Fender tremolo actually passes through the body, as shown in the diagram. It allows greater control over pitch changes and you don't have to worry about losing any springs. You can see that the spring tension is maintained at the bottom of the route (it also passes string vibrations to the body of the guitar this way -- leading many people to believe that these springs were part of the classic Fender mojo). The unit is held in place by and pivots on, two screws. The bridge has indentations that partially encircle an indent under the screw heads. Or, there are six screws in the front of the unit that holds it in place. This tremolo unit also changed the way you changed the pitch. Now, string tension is directly effected by the whammy bar as the entire bridge is moved. Pushing the bar down, toward the body, causes slack in the strings as the bridge is moved forward. Pulling the bar up, the bridge moves back, increasing tension and raising the pitch.

Just about any guitarist you can think of has, at one time or another played a guitar with this style tremolo bridge.

Not only has this tremolo fundamentally changed music. It has spawned many licensed copies. Pictured here is one of the best -- a Wilkinson tremolo unit. It smooths some edges and is a bit more playable than a factory Fender unit. This unit has such popularity that Fender has begun installing Wilkinson units in their high-end model guitars.

The issue with Fender-style tremolos is tuning. If you've ever heard any Jimi Hendrix songs live, you know he beat the hell out of his whammy bar. You also know that half way though songs he suffered tuning issues. Feedback and the very sloppy distortion of the era helped hide this. Today’s compressed, chorused, tight digital recording environments would never allow for this. Even in the late '70s, as recording and live sound got cleaner and mistakes and sound variances became more apparent, guitarists sought greater tuning stability.

Enter the Floyd Rose double-locking tremolo. This is probably the last truly significant change in tremolo/vibrato technology. While there have been improvements and tweeks, the double locking system revamped, again, the way people approached guitar playing.

Introduced in 1979, the system is similar to the Fender tremolo in that it passes through a route in the guitar body. Tension is provided by the same springs in the same place as the Fender system. The difference is that the Floyd Rose bridge locks the strings in place with a little block. You cut the balls off the end of the strings and the strings lock in place. THEN, you tune the guitar and the strings are locked at the top of the guitar with a special locking nut. This creates extreme tuning stability and spawned the divebombing and extreme pitch modulation style of play among the heavy metal guitarists of the '80s. Eddie Van Halen probably did more to create the style, but Steve Vai is the certified master of tremolo play.

Today's tweeks have involved a variaty of ways to produce this double locking system. In the late '80s, engineer Ned Steinberger introduced a series of "headless" guitars where the ball end of the strings are at the former headstock end and the strings are tuned at the bridge. This is one of the most stable tuning systems and allows some of the most extreme style of play. However, the headless neck was a bit extreme to most guitarists and it fills a very niche market.

Recently, guitar manufacturer Ibanez introduced the Edge Pro style tremolo. It's very similar to the Floyd Rose style trem, but you don't have to cut the end of the string off and it eliminates many of the sharp edges that the Floyd Rose has.

Another solution people use is to continue to use a Fender-style bridge but use locking tuners creating tuning stability. It's a popular solution for people who like the ability to change their strings quickly like a Fender but like the tuning stability of a Floyd Rose.

Me? I prefer no tremolo. Give me good ole tune-o-matics. But it's always good to know your instrument.

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

April 2, 2007

G3 @ The Tabernacle, Atlanta

My first concert in over 13 years, guys. I mean, I’ve been in bands during that time and have seen plenty of friends’ bands play, but not an honest-to-goodness concert in 13 years.

And I couldn’t think of a better show to have seen.

Joe Satriani, John Petrucci and Paul Gilbert at The Tabernacle. If you live in the southeast and have never seen a show at The Tabernacle, you really must. It’s a small venue, a little less than 3,000 people max. It’s a converted church and there’s really not a bad seat in the entire house. A very intimate setting. And loud. G307_color_admat-250.jpg

Paul Gilbert opened the show. It was Gilbert’s first time as a co-headliner for a G3 show, although he did play with Steve Lukather for the tour in 2001. Gilbert mostly played stuff off his recent album Get Out of My Yard. Of note, his touring band includes former co-band member with Racer X – Bruce Bouillet. When taking the stage, Gilbert and crew entered to the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme song. When they got to their instruments, they all bent over and picked up their instrument cables and then thrust them high overhead. It was a funny gesture, made funnier when you saw that the drummer was doing it too.

Gilbert started off with the song Get Out of My Yard which requires both special tuning, a double neck guitar, and a second person to play. It sounds great on the album, but it amazing to see live. We had great seats for the show – seventh row – and it was like being at a friend’s house watching their band practice.

They played two songs not off of GOoMY. One featured vocals and I wasn’t familiar with it, but the other was Scarified, a Racer X instrumental and probably Gilbert’s most famous instrumental. Watching Gilbert and Bouillet trade solos and harmonize licks was one of the coolest guitar playing I’ve seen in quite some time.

When Gilbert finished up his set, the roadies broke everything down and had the stage set up for Petrucci in 15 minutes. Quite the feat considering the amount of gear these guys use.

Of course, the crowd really popped for Petrucci. We stayed in our seats for most of Gilbert’s set -- standing occasionally to cheer. We never sat down once for Petrucci’s set. When entering, Mike Portnoy (Petrucci bandmate in Dream Theater) got just as big a cheer as Petrucci did. Then bass player Dave LaRue got almost the same level of props.

Petrucci played songs of his solo album Suspended Animation. It was perfect. It’s quite a thing to see him play on video, but it’s quite another to see it live. Petrucci just owns the fretboard. Owns it.

Humor in the set came while Mike Portnoy spent most of the time drumming with one hand and tossing drumsticks back and forth to the roadies. As awesome as Petrucci is on guitar Portnoy is just as damn good on drums.

Satch took stage last. And what can you really say about Satch? It was simply awesome. If Petrucci owns the fretboard, Satriani owns the whole damn guitar. It’s amazing to see how he coaxes the sounds of his instrument.

It’s the 20th anniversary of Surfing With the Alien so Joe played a selection of songs from that album and from his most recent Super Colossal. I didn’t get to hear my favorite recent tune -- Just Like Lightening -- but was quite pleased with the set regardless. Toward the end of Joe’s last song, he slowly drew down his wailing guitar and then Petrucci walked on stage and took over the soloing. As he wound down his jam, Gilbert walked on and took over. Then the crew went into the G3 jam. They played a couple of Hendrix songs, I’m Going Down, and a Rolling Stones tune, all of which Paul Gilbert sang.

It was too much awesome, to be completely honest. My throat is still sore from all the yelling.

If you have the opportunity to catch this tour, I highly suggest it.

Cullen will soon be shaving his head bald to prove his love for Satch

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

March 26, 2007

A Selection of Satch

What makes Joe Satriani so good? Well, in my opinion, there are two kinds of virtuoso guitarist – those with lots of skill who happen to play and those with lots of heart who happen to also have lots of skill. Joe has lots of heart.

The following songs are a few selections from Joe’s prolific career I have chosen to speak about briefly.

Surfing With the Alien: From the album with the same name, Surfing With the Alien holds the distinction of being the song and album that brought Joe Satriani’s name to the world. While it was his second album, it was his first big one. SWtA was the first instrumental album to appear on the Billboard Top 40.

Satriani123.jpgThe song is a fun piece of solid rock guitar. One of the things a lot of modern instrumental guitarists get into is weird time signatures and progressive time changes, but not Joe. He’s a solid 4-4 rock and roller. And it’s damn cool. This song is a solid assault of slipstream cosmic coolness, like the comic-book character from which the song was inspired.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about this piece is how the majority of the song is carrying on or an adaptation of the melody. There are some throw down solos, but the majority of the tune focuses on the central theme.

What Breaks a Heart: Off “Strange Beautiful Music” I overlooked this song for a while. The primary reason is because this album is full of songs that reach right out and grab your attention while this song requires some getting into. It’s an ambience piece and not a rocker -- at least not at first. Around 1:20 into the song, it picks up a bit. There are a lot of sonic textures going on here and that’s why I picked it. Primarily because around 1:55, Joe flies high with some soaring sonic highs. While you listen to what’s going on there though, it’s really easy to miss that he’s got this neat, ska-like rhythm happening in the background. The two sounds are at one time opposed to one another but fit together very neatly.

Just Like Lightening: This has become one of my favorite Satch songs. From his most recent studio album, “Super Colossal,” this is a solid blues-beat based song, but it has a rolling string of notes that is almost impossible to grasp occurring over and over as the melody. While that’s pretty cool on it’s own, the TONE going on in this song! Joe’s known for having great sounds, and this is another example of him squeezing out quality sound. This is just a cool-sounding tune with a classic vibe.

Chords of Life: Another track from “Strange Beautiful Music” this may be one of the best sounding guitar pieces ever written. The sounds of the guitar in this song are just amazing. It’s so clear and so rich – this is how the electric was meant to sound. The tones here recall the great tones of Les Paul and Chet Atkins, but then Joe slips into a solo that is squarely him just before the middle of the song. Again, there are a lot of sonic textures going on here. Truly, a beautiful, moving piece.

Satch Boogie: I was tempted to put in Summer Song to represent “The Extremist” when I realized that I didn’t have a single tune off his beast-selling album represented. And while there are some fantastic songs off that album, there was no way I could make a list of Satch tunes and not have Satch Boogie on it. More so than any other song he has written since, Satch Boogie is quintessential Satriani. It is solidly blues-based rock and roll. After a short buildup he takes off and Satch proves throughout the song that he can play classic rock and roll, but he can also coax sounds out of the instrument through bizarre conjurings of both effects and his whammy bar.

Stay tuned for next week’s article: G3 2007 review.

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

March 19, 2007

Jamming In A Turquoise Dream

Sometimes I dream in guitar.

satch1254.jpgI hear strings sing when I say goodnight.

Chords progress as my eyes move rapid.

There’s jingle, there’s jangle, there’s stutter, and power.

I’m t-minus 9 days away from the G3 show in Atlanta. The closer we get to the show, the more I’m anticipating it. I’m not waxing poetic about guitar-related dreams. I’ve had plenty recently.

And many of the songs are Joe Satriani’s. Next week, I intend to take several of Joe’s songs to task – explaining why he’s considered the top of the rock and roll guitarist heap. But today, let’s talk a little about the man himself.

Most people with some passing familiarity with Satriani know that in addition to being a virtuoso player, he has been a very prolific guitar instructor. His most notable students probably being Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett.

Before Satriani, instrumental rock was relegated to B-sides of popular, musically adept bands, or novelty acts such as The Ventures. But in the mid-80s, Satriani’s Surfing With the Alien gave instrumental rock a solid voice. Now it’s well-respected and viable rock music form.

His 1992 release The Extremist is his best-selling CD to date and contains many of his greatest tracks such as Summer Song. And, of course, in 1996, he started the G3 tour with his former student Steve Vai.

A constant influence on most modern rock guitarists, Satriani plays a little bit of everything. And he does so well.

Stay tuned next week for a detailed look at several of Satch’s songs.

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives

March 12, 2007

You Spin Me Right Round Baby, Right Round

I don’t tend to listen to a variety of music at any given time. While my musical appetite is eclectic, I usually fixate on one band or artist or album and absorb it for a few days or even weeks. Then I move on to the next. phonograph11.jpgWhen I come back to an artist (usually months, sometimes years, later) I still have a strong connection with the music because of such previous studious listening.

Currently in rotation is Chet Atkins “More of that Guitar Country.” While this is not my first time hearing some of these songs, it is my first time listening to this particular CD. The CD is a collection of two LPs that were originally released in 1964 and ’65.

I have written about Chet Atkins before. I won’t go into detail about him here (Though I will address a comment someone made in that old post: While Atkins is from Tennessee, he was forced to move to Georgia when he was young due to an asthma condition).

There is so much going on within the confines of this collection it’s hard to wrap my mind around it. Anyone who thinks they can pigeonhole Atkins into the simple stereotype of “country guitarist” probably hasn’t listened much to anything the guy ever played. My heart skips at least twice in every song on this album. It’s gorgeous, and the sheer quality of his tone and the ability that was in those fingers is as obvious today as it was then.

So, what’s occupying your CD/MP3 player right now? Do you share my affliction? Can you shuffle? Is there a cure?

I'm All About The Guitar Archives

March 5, 2007

Gonna Get Me A Piece Of Reese’s

This is normally a guitar article. Sometimes, though, you just gotta let it go and do what has to be done. reesesegg-lg.jpg

See, Easter is almost upon us. Well, it’s still technically a month away, the stores would have you believe that the holiday is tomorrow. As such, with overriding sense of foreboding, I must pay tribute to one of the greatest things mankind has ever put forth. It rises forth this time of the year and touches the souls of all mankind.

It is – the Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg.

I am powerless to its charms.

Every time this year I must limit my trips to the store. Because if I walk by an aisle with those damn eggs on them, I will pick up a package. I believe one year I bought over 10 damn packages through the month of March.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are pretty good, but there’s something about the egg that just sets it apart from its brethren. The chocolate-to-peanut butter ratio may be different or something – I don’t know – but these things are the best.

So, what about you? Any Easter-time-only treats that render you helpless?

February 26, 2007

31 Days Left

JPMM1-1.jpgG3, Atlanta, 31 days from now. Last week I talked about guitarist Paul Gilbert, one of the 3 guitarists on this tour. This week I’m going to take a little different tact talking about another guitarist. I’m going to talk about John Petrucci’s Ernie Ball signature guitar.

Most popular guitarists have a signature model. Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Scott Ian … the list goes on. Petrucci is no different. But where many guitarists will simply take an existing model and tweak it to their liking, Petrucci (after doing that very thing with Ibanez for several years) sought out Ernie Ball Music Man to build him a brand new guitar from scratch.

What they produced is a little different, heavy, fast and great sounding.

At about seven-and-a-half pounds, the guitar is heavy for a “super Strat” style guitar. But that substance equals a ton of resonance. As with all Music Man guitars, the six strings have a four x two tuner configuration on the peg head, but that’s where the similarities with other Music Man guitars end. You can click the link above to get the specs, but the biggest innovations in this guitar are the custom DiMarzio pickups and the John Petrucci-designed tremolo bridge. The guitar can come equipped with piezo picups built into the saddles of the bridge. The upshot of his design is one of the most acoustic-sounding electric guitars out there.

Of course, you’ll pay a premium price for this weapon of shred construction (sorry, I had to) but it’s comparable or lower in price than other guitars in its class. If you have the chance, pick one up at your local Ernie Ball dealer and give it a test run. You won’t be disappointed.

Lastly, there are some great John Petrucci parody videos on You Tube. Years ago, Petrucci did a video called “Rock Discipline” that taught guitarists how to warm up to play so you don’t hurt youself while shredding like the demon he is. This YouTuber took clips from that, dubbed in new vocal for some entertaining videos. The guy doing them is obviously a Petrucci fan, you can kind of get that from his treatment of Yngwie in one of the videos.



February 19, 2007

Impatiently Waiting For March 28

For those of you who don’t read my blog (1) or haven’t been by in a while, my wife’s early Valentine’s Day present (2) to me (and, to herself) is a nice evening out in Atlanta to see G3 2007 (3).

[I hate it when there are so many hotlinks stacked in an opening paragraph, so I’ll provide citation: (1) My blog; (2) The entry on my blog where I talk about said present; (3) Joe Satriani’s G3 page.]

Dudes. Check out the name of the column. This concert is like Mecca to me. I am such a fan of these three guitarists in particular, I am nearly bursting my seams waiting for this show. I watch the 2005 G3DVD and listen to the CD pretty often.

So, over the next few weeks, helping build up more anticipation for me than any show could possibly deliver, I’m going to talk about the different guitarists and other aspects of G3. This week I’m going to talk about Paul Gilbert.

Paul Gilbert is lumped in with a lot of different guitarists – sometimes it’s honest, sometimes it’s unfair.

When in Racer X in the mid-80s, he made a name for himself as one of the fastest guitarists in heavy metal. Scarified is considered by many to be one of the best heavy metal instrumentals of 80s.

The other thing that has endured Gilbert to a wide audience is his sense of humor. Manifesting in quirky licks, songs, stage outfits and a truly hilarious Web site.

Gilbert has earned comparisons to some of heavy metal’s “royalty” such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, but especially Yngwie Malmsteen. This comparison to Yngwie resulted in the Racer X instrumental YRO (Yngwie Rip Off). Most of this comparison is due to the fact that he studied at the Guitar Institute for a year; the institute using the chops of the aforementioned guitarists as curricula. Gilbert has instructed at GIT and is now the unofficial dean of the MI Japan schools.

Thus, those comparisons come honest. However, he has earned some comparisons that aren’t quite as kind. See, Gilbert is also co-responsible for Mr. Big. Because of he and Billy Sheehan, we have been cursed with I’m the One Who Wants to be With You. Well … everyone makes mistakes. Especially 80s and 90s era metal bands. And even though they gave us that song, there was a hell of a lot of good tunes they put out. Sheehan is a superbassist, you know.

Anyway, check out his stuff, check out his site, and enjoy yourself. It won’t be hard.

Paul Gilbert does a recent version of Scarified:

Watch the bass player rock that Rickenbacker bass!

Here’s a bass solo by Billy Sheehan and later Paul Gilbert comes out and they have a guitar vs. bass duel (it’s very long – drums kick in and Gilbert joins at around 6 minutes).

Who the hell has a scalloped fretboard on the bass? Billy freakin’ Sheehan.

And this is just amazing.

Type “Paul Gilbert” into You Tube and find some other great videos.


February 12, 2007

Cover Songs

Today I step a little further outside the confines of my self-imposed guitar-centric theme and discuss a more general music topic – cover songs.

When I joined the Army in 1994, the school for my career field (Public Affairs) was in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. It closed down shortly after I graduated, but there will always be strong memories I associate with that place. There are certain activities I will associate with that place also. One of them is developing film. Another is cover songs.

Part of the Print Journalism PAO program is Photojournalism, and 12 years ago when I went through we were still using wet film. There was an intro to digital manipulation, but it was all of a two-hour class. The rest of the time, we were shooting with old full-manual Canons (the kind that could double as a mace) and developing the film. The building where the Photojournalism instruction took place had been a jail in World War II. The individual cells had been converted to individual darkrooms. Two students were paired and shared a cell.

Before the IPOD and the portability that MP3 players brought, the smallest CD players we could get our hands were about the size of a breadbox. But that’s what we had, and my darkroom partner and I had ours set up every day while we made our contact sheets. One disc B000002HB0.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpgI was burning out at the time was The Breeders’ Pod. One of the songs often replayed (the meat, FINALLY!, such a circuitous route to get here, eh?) was their cover of The Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun. The other day, that song popped up in rotation on my MP3 player and I thought, “What a good topic for a column!”

So, here is my list of my personal favorite cover songs and my reasons why. They are in no particular order, just some of the cover tunes I really like.

Stevie Ray VaughanLittle Wing: Jimi Hendrix was a genius and most guitarists that have come after him have been pale imitations or have had to work hard to distinguish themselves in some other fashion. Vaughan was one of the few guitarists brave enough to play a lot of Hendrix tunes. He not only played them, but he played them well. In the case of Little Wing, this is one of the few cases where I believe the remake surpasses the original. By cutting the vocals and focuses on mood and tension, Vaughan changes the dynamic of Hendrix’s original version. However, while you don’t get the specific identity that Hendrix gave with lyrics, I believe that Vaughan far more successfully conveys the mood the song portrays.

The Breeders - Happiness is a Warm Gun: Well, this one had to be on the list, being the catalyst for the entire piece. The original Beatles song is a classic and arguably one of their very best songs. Musically, The Breeders’ version is very true to the original. I mean, the music is a bit tighter and production value is modern, but there’s no major divergence from the source material. The main difference is in how Kim Deal chose to sing almost under the music. Her vocals add a subtlety that the original doesn’t possess. Now, I still prefer the original, but there aren’t many other cover songs that do as good a job as covering as this song.

Joe Satriani - Sleep Walk: Another cover song that is very true to the original. What Satch does though is take the song off the steel guitar and puts it entirely on a normal 6 string. Where the song greatly benefits is modern production and Satch’s ear for tone.

Slayer - Dissident Aggressor: When I first heard South of Heaven, I was not a big fan of Judas Priest. The only songs I knew were the mass consciousness ones like Breaking the Law or Living After Midnight. So, I didn’t know that this song was a Priest tune. When I first heard it I thought it was a very different sound for Slayer, but I still thought it sounded good. It’s a fun song to listen to, especially with Slayer’s dissonance added to it. Since hearing the Priest original, I have that much more respect for Slayer by making a good song out of that steaming pile of platypus crap.

Ramones - Palisades Park: This one was tough. The Ramones did so many covers, but they did such a great job with Palisades Park it rises to the top. I could have easily put the Spiderman theme song, R.A.M.O.N.E.S., Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, or others. Palisades Park is such a fun song and the Ramones do a great job of capturing the feeling of the tune while still being the Ramones.

Well, those are a few of mine, what are some of yours?

Cullen once did a death metal cover of the Canadian National Anthem


February 5, 2007

Never Put The Guitar Down

I love the guitar. I love listening to it. I love watching someone good play it. I love just looking at well crafted guitars (visit here for some cool projects), and I love owning the instruments. I don't play very well, though. I'm self-taught and although there was a time I was getting good, I took several years off from playing and my skills depreciated greatly.

There is something remarkable about youth. You have time to invest when you have no real responsibility. And you seem to just absorb things and skills are sharpened quickly. Not quite so as you age and you split yourself into 80 different tracks of thought and action. So, anyway, I suck at playing guitar. But I still love it and there was a time I didn't think I sucked. At least not anywhere near as bad as now.

The first time I ever thought, "Hey, I'm getting pretty decent at this," was shortly after this album came out:

As a late 80s, early 90s metalhead, you looked forward to the "big guys" putting out new albums. Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Iron Maiden, Suicidal Tendencies and SLAYER. Slayer was the heaviest, fastest band around at the time. They’re not the best musicians, but they write very cool music. Seasons in the Abyss is the culmination of years of work on their part. The band members said that this album combines the heaviness they always possessed with better melodies they had been trying to incorporate the previous two albums. This is not my favorite Slayer album. I actually think that Reign in Blood is their best, but this album will always be special to me.

A friend of mine got his hands on the tape shortly after it came out and I was able to get him to dub a copy for me. And then, over the course of one Saturday, I sat in my room with a walkman and my guitar and learned to play every single song on this album. In order.

I had a couple of issues here and there. I didn't do solos (still don't), but I nailed down all the rhythms. I stepped outside my idea of how to play certain ways and developed new skills so I could play at their speed.

One day. I dissected this album. It was great. From the punch-you-in-the face assault of War Ensemble to the eerily dissonant Dead Skin Mask, I pounded out these tunes on my piece of crap Quantum electric guitar (You can't even find this guitar on Google. You can find a review of their amps on Harmony Central).

I actually still have the guitar body but have no idea what happened to the neck. I currently trying to piece together some of my old parts to make this a working guitar again. Once I get the project back on track, I'll probably post pics of progress, etc.

Anyway ... I love this album because it's the first piece of music that gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. Not, "I learned a song" accomplishment, but "I learned their whole album" accomplishment. And for that, I thank you, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman.

Cullen discovered that if you listen to Reign in Blood backwards, you'll get a headache.

January 29, 2007

Bridging The 6-String Divide

I learned to play guitar in Mountain Home, Idaho. I doubt it had anything to do with Idaho – other than the fact that there was not much else to do there – and had more to do with the fact that everyone in my age group at that time was trying to pick up a guitar and start the next Metallica.

I am self taught, which is code speak for, “I suck.” But at the time, I wasn’t too bad. I spent hours a day just playing my guitar and have never really played like that since then.

We moved to Mountain Home at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school. We moved there from Biloxi, Mississippi. So, I was moving from an emerging urban area to the middle of nowhere.

prepboy.jpgMy style didn’t really fit in there. This was 1988. I was moving to a place where half of the population came from farms or ranches. So, the cowboy look was big. There was, of course, the standard high school prep. And there were those into heavy metal and hard rock – long hair, blue jean or leather jackets and T shirts were the uniform. I didn’t fit in with any of them. My clothes were all black. I wore old military fatigues with hand-painted band logos on them. I had a recently cut mohawk. Everyone was into Guns and Roses and Poison. I was into the Misfits and Suicidal Tendencies.

One of the worst issues I had occurred in the first week of my English class. I was wearing a green fatigue top that had a Samhain logo with “I get what I want, and I want you to bleed” written under the logo. There was this guy there, Kip (doesn’t that just sound like the kind name that you’d have a problem with?) and he’s sitting behind me, a couple of rows over. He looks over at me and says, “You think you could make me bleed?”

With a bravado borne out of inexperience, I said something to the effect, “Of course I could.”

He looks at me with a stare of death and says, “No. I really don’t think you could.”

I’d love to say that I wound up kicking Kip’s ass, or stood up to him in some way. Hell, I wish I could say I at least fucked his sister. But none of it happened. He was a wrestler, with wrestler friends and I really didn’t look forward to getting my ass handed to me.

Because there were so few people I identified with, I spent a lot of time in my room, smoking, watching movies and eventually, learning to play guitar. I grew my hair out long and adopted a look more like the metal bands I was beginning to listen to more and more.

In my junior year, in our junior English class, we had an assignment where we had to write about a hobby. We had to bring an example in to class and talk about it. I brought my guitar. I played a couple of Metallica riffs and then a couple of Misfits riffs.

At the end of class, Kip walks over to me and said, “That was cool, man” and went off to his next class.

Politicians can say all they want about being great communicators and uniters, I’ll stick with the guitar.

Cullen eventually showed Kip his bowhunting skills.


January 22, 2007

Capitalism Sells. But Your Music is Suffering

I am a capitalist. In the grand scheme of things I believe that capitalism, tempered with some minor regulation, is best for a country’s economy and, ultimately, society and its political systems.

henry_rollins_sell_out.jpgThat said, there are some pitfalls to capitalism. One of the areas that suffer greatly under a capitalist system is the arts. When everything is a commodity, people are more interested in marketing what sells than what may be the newest or most innovative. And one area where this is very evident is in music.

A lot of people complain when an underground band they like goes mainstream. Some people may scoff at this, but there is some legitimate concern. Just take a look at the history of bands like The Offspring, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and (and I REALLY hate to say this) Henry Fucking Rollins.

It’s insidious, this commercialism.

It starts with better production quality. Think back to Ride the Lightning or Freaky Styley. Then compare those to later releases like … And Justice For All and Mother’s Milk. And then compare those to later releases The Black Album and Blood Sugar Sex Magic. Hear the edge slipping away? Hear the raw power give away to that slick noise gate and compression?

On the earlier work, even though they were studio albums, you knew that under the best of conditions you could expect to hear something similar live as to what you were hearing on these albums. Then you have the transition albums (or albums, in some cases). These albums have better production but still maintain a sense of that raw energy from the earlier studio albums.

Finally, the “Fuck it, lets over-produce the shit outta this” albums come out. It’s the Bob Rock syndrome. Is that album a little too heavy? Lets just smooth it out with some extra chorus and mix it down a little. Let’s over-effect those vocals -- put the singer through some more vocal training first -- and overdub like our lives depend on it. Gotta watch that subject matter also. You have to sound like you’re being controversial without actually being controversial or offending anyone.

While all this is going on, the record label’s marketing team is aggressively pushing the band making them seem like the best thing ever. In the case of Metallica, to your die-hard fans, you’re being sold as “the greatest Metallica album ever,” but to pull in that elusive top-40 audience, you’re being marketed as “a new, edgy voice in this troubled world.” And then everybody and their mother buys the album. And then you hear Johnny McPopCollar singing Nothing Else Matters. And then nothing else matters ‘cept dumping your Metallica collection and forgetting that you ever liked them.

It has nothing to do with them becoming popular. It has everything to do with them trying so hard to get there.

Cullen has a copy of "Load", but uses it as a coaster.


January 15, 2007

Concert Going in the Early ‘90s

Sometimes coincidence can be pretty funny, sometimes it can suck and sometimes it can do both.

1993 was a pretty good year for music: The Breeders Last Splash, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me (an essential album!), Tool Undertow (another essential album), Nirvana In Urtero, Cypress Hill Black Sunday, even Depeche Commode tried to rock it up some with Songs of Suck and Devotion.

It was a great, short era of music. Everything seemed so alive at that moment. Like you could do anything with a guitar and the right attitude about music. There was a lot of burgeoning experimentation among musical genres. Lollapalooza was still the concert event to wait for/attend.

The man and band the media put at the front of this -- I hesitate to call it a revolution, I guess I prefer reawakening because the spirit is always there in the music -- was Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. The ending to his story is sad and we all know it and I’m not going to dwell on it. It is suffice to say that I got to see them during their last tour, but I really wasn’t going to see them.

To say that I wasn’t a Nirvana fan would be a lie. But today I feel like it’s a guilty pleasure. While there are a lot of folks out there who quickly turned their backs on the whole Seattle music scene after his death and the equally quick demise of grunge, I still love the music. I love all my old Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Mother Love Bone albums. There was something raw and articulate about they way they approached their music that I still love today.

Kim Deal kicks ass.In Dec. 1993, my wife (then fiancé) and I made the hour trek to the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans to see Nirvana. The Breeders were the opening band. I admit that I was really going to see them. While Nirvana is still a guilty pleasure (and I’m not that big a fan any more), I am still in love with The Breeders. Anyone who was a part of such a great musical entity as The Pixies and then continued to put out great music in her own project is deserving of praise. Kim Deal has long been one of my favorite musicians.

Still wish I knew where my ticket stub wentHere is a copy of a ticket to the show. It’s not mine, but it’s from the same show. I had kept them for years, but I don’t know if I could even find it or if I threw it out or not. It’s a shame, in retrospect. The important thing to notice here is that only Nirvana is listed on the ticket, no other bands.

After securing my tickets (Damn you, Ticketmaster! Remember that angst?) and waiting for the day, we climbed into my 1965 Ford Custom 500 and drove. At some point during the drive we started talking about what bands were playing. Of course the headliner was locked in, and when I purchased the ticket, The Breeders were on the billboard, but I never heard anything more about them being on the billing. Plus, there was supposed to be a third band, but no one said anything about which band it was and we had no idea.

Worried that it was going to be some really bad band, we started talking about bad bands. My wife had lived in Europe a good portion of her childhood and had just come back from Greece before her senior year of high school. So, she was privy to the horror that is MTV Europe.

From what I’ve heard from her, and other folks since then, MTV Europe at that time was some kind of conduit into the absolute worst music mankind can possibly produce. I was at a disadvantage. I had, up to this point, only lived in the States. My exposure to bad bands, while aplenty, was related to pretty common groups. So, I pulled out the only ace I had in my deck -- Shonen Knife. I had seen them on that alternative show MTV used to run on Tuesday or Wednesday. Crap! I can’t remember the day.

For those of you how don’t know who Shonen Knife are they are an all-girl Japanese band. They play punk pop, a la The Ramones, but very poorly. If you want to hear them, watch Cartoon Network some time and you will eventually hear them.

But back in '93, there was no Cartoon Network and very few people knew who Shonen Knife were. From the little I saw of the video that night, long ago, the atonal nightmare that is Shonen Knife had forever been burned into that portion of the brain that attempts to make humor out of your most horrible experiences. We were both Ramones fans and laughed at the idea of Japanese girl punk.

We arrived at the arena. Got in and started making our way to our seats. No sooner had we walked through the doors into the balcony seating than I heard a strange, painful noise. I looked at the stage and turned to my fiancé. “No way! I said. It’s Shonen Knife!”

We made our way to our seats (left of the stage, not nosebleeds but way up there). Knife was funny. My memory is somewhat clouded by Rum and Coke, but I distinctly remember one number: “Merry, merry Christmas, happy, happy Christmas, merry, merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” sang in happy Japanese-girl voice over Ramones-style punk. I can’t remember ever laughing so hard at a concert. Too funny.

Of course, The Breeders and Nirvana put on inspired shows. It was a great evening. Good show. Great memory.

Cullen sometimes puts on a dress to perform in a Shonen Knife tribute band

January 8, 2007

Rocky George

Rocky George is a hell of a guitarist, and one who is simultaneously well-liked and hated by those who would normally be just fine with his catalog of work. Punk fans have a major issue with George. He’s the person primarily responsible for moving Suicidal Tendencies away from punk and into thrash.

Due to a variety of record-label, personnel line-up and legal problems, Suicidal Tendencies had a huge break between their seminal, self-titled album and it’s follow up Join the Army, the former released in 1983, the latter in ‘87. During that time, George had a huge influence on singer/band leader Mike Muir and the sound of the band. But JtA can still be classed hardcore punk and is one of the most listened to skate-punk albums of the era.

But then came 1988’s How Will I Laugh Tomorrow … ? and almost everything punk about ST had changed. Musically, at least. Thematically, Muir was still writing about the same stuff, but it was now framed by thrash and somewhat progressive metal. Even incorporating some funk elements when bassist Robert Truijillo joined the band and they released Lights…Camera…Revolution! in 1990. Rocky.jpg

George stayed with the band until 1995 (and three more albums) and played for other bands, including the Cro-Mags, until joining Fishbone in 2003.

George has what has come to be understood as a typical metal style. His rhythms are succinct but full and his solos are frenetic and tasteful and have influenced many guitarists to date. Some of his earlier work suffers from bad tone and bad recording quality. Typical of many metal guitarists of the early-to-mid 80s, those early adopters of high-end effects, his solos are over-produced – they have too much chorus, too much compression and lose some of their bite. Notes meld into each other rather than being distinct. Notice, however, how different his sound is on Lights…Camera…

Suicidal holds a special place in my heart as one of the first metal bands I ever started listening to and the first punk album I ever heard. Because of that, I’m probably very forgiving of the change in style – evolution, I guess. Regardless of what you may feel about the band, George is well-worth listening to.

All Cullen wants is a Pepsi. Just a Pepsi. And she wouldn't give it to him. Just a Pepsi.


January 3, 2007

New Starts, New Jams

[due to a clerical error (read, a oversight by an editor whose name starts with an M) we missed this column that Cullen sent us before he went on vacation. So here it is today, in a special edition of All About the Guitar]

I started playing guitar because of heavy metal. The first song I learned how to play was Am I Evil and then several Metallica songs after that. Basically, I was absorbing every simple metal tune I could and slowly getting better at playing it.

geetar.jpgOver time, my listening interests have grown. I grew up on country, gospel and classical. My rebellion to that was metal and punk. Since then, my appreciation for music has grown to accept those forms from my youth and multitudes of other forms of music since.

My point is that while I was “under the influence” of metal and punk alone, I was hyper-critical of just about every other kind of music out there. If it didn’t have loud, distorted guitars, it sucked. And, if you listened to that music, something must be wrong with you.

Perhaps that’s just a juvenile mentality, but you still see it everywhere. I guess, with the new year upon us (well, here by the time this is read), I think back on that time and look at me now and wish I hadn’t been such a closed-minded asshole.

That’s what New Year means to me. It’s not a time to attempt to self-impose worthless resolutions that will fail as quickly as Paris Hilton in a math class. It’s a time to accept new things and realize that there’s a bigger world out there than that imagined in your philosophy.

A big world certainly applies to music. There’s plenty out there that I don’t like, and there’s plenty out there I think legitimately sucks. But those are personal opinions and opinions tempered by knowledge and study. It’s the knee-jerk reaction we have to be wary of.

How does this relate to the guitar? I’m not entirely sure. Heck, my birthday is today, so accept new and bigger things and buy me a damn Gretsch! Fuck the “bigger world” shit, it’s all about me! Buy me stuff, dammit!

And happy New Year.

Cullen just might want you to buy him stuff.


The editors of Faster Than The World wish Cullen a very happy birthday.

January 1, 2007

Afghan Jam

Cullen is on vacation this week, so we are running a "best of" for his column. This is the first thing he ever wrote for FTTW, when Michele and Turtle were on vacation back in August.

The hadji-ee-ee don’t like it, rock the chapel, rock the chapel

Believe it or not, I'm walking on air. I never thought I could feel so free.For those of you who don’t know, I spent 10 years in the Army. A significant chunk of my last year in was spent deployed to Afghanistan.

I was a REMF, a pogue, a leg, a garrison puke.

However, I was deploying out of Fort Polk, and during my tenure had spent a lot of time in the "box" at the Joint Readiness Training Center. By the time we deployed, I had about as much field time as any infantry troop. One of the things I knew was that to survive long deployments, you needed to take as many comfort items as possible.

The main comfort item I decided to take was my guitar.

Which spent most of the time zipped up in its case, stacked behind my coffee counter in my office while I surfed the net (thank you internet gods from GE contracted by the Army to run our backbone).

The building I was in (an old Russian office building) was next to the base chapel (another converted building). So, the chaplains would come over to our office often to try and get us to publish information about upcoming services or events they were holding.

Oh yeah, I was the editor of the newspaper.

Anyway, every chaplain in the Army has an assistant. One of the assistants turned out, like me, to be a fan of punk and metal. He also happened to be a drummer. He also happened to have a drum kit. Well, it was the chapel’s kit, but still, there was a kit.

And lo, it came to pass, two Army sergeants jammed Misfits tunes mightily in the Bagram Air Base chapel. And lo, it came to pass, several other military folks did enter the chapel. And lo, they did think it good, even though the guitarist sucked.

We jammed for about an hour and did this about three times. The third time, one of the chaplains came out and motioned for us to stop playing.

"Um," he said. You know that look that people get when they’re about to tell you something you don’t want to hear, well he had that. The thing you have to keep in mind is that people in a war zone don’t like giving each other bad news. You see, you carry a loaded weapon with you everywhere. Unless you’re a chaplain.

But we knew he was about to take our toy away. We’d already started packing up when he motioned for us to stop.

"This is probably not the best place to be playing that kind of music," the chaplain said.

"Okay, sir," I said. And our jamming was over.

While we found other things to occupy our time (I mean, I still had the internets), it made both me and my drummer pal happy to hear that several people who’d stopped by to hear us had asked the chaplain why we weren’t playing any more.

His reply? He didn’t think that kind of music was "good for morale."

How gorgeous is this view? It can be a very pretty place, but you wouldn't imagine some of the crap you'd see right off the base. This is a more recent view, we didn't have those hard-stand buildings for living like you see right behind the vehicles.



December 25, 2006

The Night Before Christmas


Twas the night before Christmas and the city was quiet

I had money for a guitar but nowhere was open to buy it.

The money in my pocket was beginning to burn,

My fret hand was trembling; I was getting concerned.

My chick was at home, probably schtupping her ex.

My old guitar in pawn, probably playing Tex-Mex.

As I neared an alley and turned round the corner,

Hand on my flask, hoping to get warmer,

When back in the corner, arose such a clatter,

I ducked behind the dumpster to protect my gray matter.

I prayed then and there my faith solidified in a flash,

But then I heard someone playing the Clash.

The moon, sickly greasy from heating unit’s blow

Cast a light upon the guitar player in the corner below

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,

A Les Paul sitting beside him and a six-pack of beer.

With little Fender Bullet amp, lively and gritty

We nodded in time and worked up a ditty.

We fell into time as though we’d jammed forever,

prison-bars.gifMy rhythms shattered concrete his leads did sever.

“PT Boat on the way to Havana,

I used to make a living, man picking the banana”

We jammed for hours just feet from the street

Not realizing how soon the cops we would meet.

The cops, it seems, were trying to clear up the hoods

Someone was apparently playing stolen goods.

Now I sit in a holding cell and all I can do is stare.

And some smelly hippy’s trying to braid my hair.

All I wanted was a guitar for Christmas day,

But I’m looking at 5 – 10 for a few hours play.

So I say to all businesses that close Christmas Eve,

Fuck you, you bastards! Some of us have needs.

Cullen says: Merry Christmas, you jackasses. And I mean that the nice way. :)


December 18, 2006

The guitarists of TSO

Al_pitrelliTSO.jpgAll right. When I think about guitars and Christmas, I think playing elf baseball with a Fender Stratocaster and a bunch of those annoying little elf fucks. You know how fun it would be to bash their happy little skulls in with a little maple and alder? Stangle ‘em with guitar strings? Spike them on arrow-head pegboard guitar necks? It can’t just be me. Can it?

Anyway, the next thing I think about is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I am not fond of Christmas music. I wasn’t always this way, but all those damn Christmas shows we had to do in elementary school left a lasting negative imprint on my psyche. I don’t hate Christmas, I rather like it, actually, but the music tends to piss me off. However, there has been some pretty good stuff out there and TSO has and is putting out listenable Christmas tunes.

Helping to put an edge to the Christmas orchestra are guitarists Alex Skolnick and Al Pitrelli.

tsothen.jpgAlex Skolnick has long been a favorite guitarist of mine. I picked up on Testament when the released their “Legacy” album. Sure, musically they were very derivative of Metallica (pre-sell out Black album), but there was one thing that set them apart – Skolnick. Alex has always been a hell of a guitarist playing just enough to match the music, choosing his notes carefully and using cutting, clear tone.

Starting his career with Testament, Skolnick grew bored with the metal scene and began to look for ways to branch out. He left Testament and played with progressive metal band Savatage which led to him playing for the Savatage side-project TSO. Skolnick later succumbed to his love of jazz, went back to music school to learn more about jazz theory and formed the Alex Skolnick Trio. AST plays jazzy, bebop remakes of classic rock and metal songs.

He still plays with TSO and has reunited with Testament several times since leaving and is considered a current member.

While Testament was never as popular as heavy hitters Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, Skolnick is regularly cited as an influence by modern metal guitarists.

Al Pitrelli is perhaps best known for his three-year stint with Megadeth. Filling the tremendous void left in the band by Marty Friedman’s departure, Pitrelli was present on the “return to classic Megadeth sound” albums until Dave Mustaine sustained nerve damage to his arm.

Pitrelli got his start in the business playing with Alice Cooper and progressive metal band Asia. Eventually winding up with Savatage, he found his way into TSO. Both he and Skolnick perform with the orchestra, with TSO having east and west coast touring groups.

Recognizable for his scorching, clear leads, Pitrelli has similar chops to Friedman. Classically based with the occasional exotic scale, his playing is interesting and complex.

Crank up some TSO the next time you want to smack an elf. It’s therapeutic. Or you could watch that damn Christmas light video again.

Cullen has been issued a stay-away order from the Society For the Preservation of Elves.


December 11, 2006

Last Minute Shopping

Got some last minute Christmas shopping to do for the guitarist in your life? Here are some great gift ideas certain to strum your string-slinger’s power chord.

Here are some of the cheaper entries you could find, $100 or less:

Guitar Tool. Regardless of the age or playing level of your guitarist, a tool such as this makes a fantastic gift. Similar in design to your average multi-tool, it parts company in functionality with tools specifically tailored for the demands of the instrument.

Cost: $20 - $30

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

This particular product is no longer made. How fucking awful is that? This stuff was so cool. Great packaging. Cleaning Kit. I have spoken here about how important it is to clean and care for your instrument. So, you might want to pick up some gear for your axe-slinger to show their instrument love.

Cost: $15 - $30

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

Line 6 Guitar Port. A cool tool for beginners and pros. The Guitar Port gives you 10 amp models and an array of effects as long as you have a USB equipped PC or Mac. And, if you don’t, I mean, get out of the cave already.

Cost: $100

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

If your axe-man is more deserving, you might consider the following gifts in the $101 - $400 price range:

Roland Mini Cube. This little wonder allows you to take your annoying … er, guitar playing mobile. This little amp runs on 6 AA batteries or AC power. It offers 6 DSP effects, 7 amp models, headphone jack, and auxiliary input.

Cost: $125 - 130

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

OLP John Petrucci Guitar Pack. If you’ve got a beginner looking for a decent axe or an enthusiast who’s a Dream Theater geek (Me? Naaaaw), the OLP John Petrucci signature pack is an affordable alternative to its Music Man bigger brother.

Cost: $199 - $350

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

Ibanez RG350. The choice of guitar for metal and punk, the Ibanez RG series is a serious instrument in any of its incarnations. The RG350 is a very affordable yet feature rich guitar. It has an Edge III bridge for unhindered dive bombing, three DiMarzio-designed pickups. The guitar is offered in many different colors and designs to fit your musician’s aesthetic desires.

Cost: $350 - $400

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

Fender G-DEC 30. The G-DEC (Digital Entertainment Center) that offers a wealth of digital effects, amp models, presets, MIDI, connections, and a wealth more. Seriously, check the links, this thing’s amazing. All of this combined with legendary Fender sound and you’ve got a hell of a package.

Cost: $370 - $400

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

Maybe you’re rich or have a lot of extra cash to spend in 30 days or you’ll lose the $300 million, but let’s be honest – if you’re in the market for the next few items, you’re buying them for yourself. Here are some suggestions from $400 and up.

DigiTech GNX4. This GNX4 Guitar Workstation is the gold standard of multi-effects processors today. If you read any guitar magazine, you’ll find that all the lessons and tab breakdowns tell you how to dial in the sound using the GNX4. There is so much going on with this thing that you’ll have to click below to check out the sites to see for yourself and even then you won’t see everything. Download the user’s manual and you’ll get a better idea. One of the neat things is that all the effects and user banks can be tweaked via included software when you plug the thing up to your PC. Maybe not as cool as single effects, but you’d spend thousands to get a fraction of this multi-effect system’s capabilities.

Cost: $500

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

Gibson Les Paul Menace. Every so often, Gibson plays around with their standard guitar design to offer a special instrument that usually only lasts for a limited time. The Voodoo series is a good example. This year, Gibson tinkered with the Les Paul a bit and came up with this new model – the Menace. It’s got some interesting cosmetic changes and has brushed chrome hardware. Most importantly though, it has an ebony fretboard – very much a rarity on a Gibson Les Paul! If you play metal, this thing should be right up your alley, but honestly, I imagine this thing’ll be a good investment as I’m sure it won’t last long.

Cost: $860

Links: Music 123, Musician’s Friend

M-Power Pro Tool Recording Kit. Get your home studio started the right way. Industry-standard Pro Tools digital audio recording and editing is paired with a M-Audio 1814 FireWire recording interface, mic stand, mic and headphones. Just what you need to take your music out of the garage. Or put the garage on MySpace, which is more likely.

Cost: $800

Link: Musician’s Friend

Krank Half Stack. Aural sex abuse. This is the same stuff Dimebag Darrel used. Clear, crisp clean sounds with amazingly voiced, screaming distortion. Better not have neighbors.

Cost: $2,600

Link: Music 123

Gretsch Brian Setzer Black Phoenix Guitar. Do I even need to say anything about how cool this guitar is? I didn’t think so.

Cost: $3,640

Link: Private Reserve Guitars

So, um, if anyone feels a little extra generous this holiday season, a certain guitar-centric writer would love any of these things.

Cullen wants Santa to know that he was a very, very good boy this year. Except for that one thing. And he's already done his time for that.


December 4, 2006

Where is your soul?

My purpose in writing these columns isn’t to talk much about how to play the guitar. handguitar.jpgThere are already far more proficient people doing a far better job of that than I ever could. The idea is that I would, perhaps, introduce folks to guitarists they didn’t know much about, share my love with other people, and talk about some history and technical aspects of the instrument. To that end, I usually switch weeks – one week I’ll focus on a guitarist or band and the next I’ll do a “tech” article.

I bring this up because this week is supposed to be a “tech” article. And, in a way, I guess it does discuss theory somewhat … but it’s really about “mojo.” That mythical something that makes our music ours.

I have a theory about the “soul” of guitarist. It’s obvious that chord progression choices are significant as well as how you play those chords. But where I think the soul really lies is in how close you play those notes and chords to the beat.

If you have a four-four beat, you have four beats in one measure. Those beats are divided equally in the measure. So when you’re playing on the beat, each chord plays on the beat, in a predictable, measured time. When playing a rhythm, it’s rare to play a chord off-beat (though it does happen, I mean, this is music). But soloist, on the other hand, is going to put his notes on top of that rhythm and most often in line to the same beat. However, if you pay very careful attention to solos, you’ll notice that a lot of players will place their notes just before or just after a beat.

That choice, that subtle difference in time, and the variation between hitting the beat and consciously playing off beat, is your feeling. And that feeling is your “soul.”

Cullen sold his soul to rock and roll


November 27, 2006

Steve Cropper

It probably says something about the state of music listeners when one of the greatest guitarists of rock and roll goes virtually unspoken of in most modern circles. Volumes have been written about the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen. But for some folks, their music speaks for them, and maybe that’s not so bad.

At the heart of the birth of soul music was Stax Records and at the heart of Stax Records was session musician Steve Cropper.

Steve-Cropper_300.jpgCropper has performed on some of the most influential soul and early rock and roll music that this country has produced. Additionally, he and fellow session musician Booker T. Jones formed Booker T. and the MGs. Their track Green Onions is one of the greatest instrumental songs ever written.

While the guitar gods emerged as objects of adoration, there was a firm foundation they were building upon. Cropper’s strength is not in his ability to play technically complex, polyrhythmic pieces, but in his ability to only add as much guitar as needed to make the music complete.

What makes Cropper an amazing guitarsman is the depth and breadth of sound he is able to achieve with technique. Though different picking and fretting techniques, he is able to significantly change his sound without having to turn a knob on his guitar. He is also known for fully using his amp’s tone settings to modify his sound. He and Booker T. were both very sound conscious and were able to write music that sounded larger and fuller than their band was because of their attention to tone.

Cropper was busy influencing a generation of soul guitarists, but also had admirers overseas. The Beatles were huge fans of Steve Cropper. While musician wannabes were worshipping the Beatles, the Beatles were worshipping Cropper. There’s a story, apocryphal perhaps, that the first time they met Cropper, they bowed to him as though he were royalty. It is known that the Beatles wanted to record Revolver in Memphis using some of Cropper’s guitar work. But they weren’t able to work out schedules.

While everyone knows Green Onions (even if you don’t know it by that name and just know it as “the song that goes dah-na-na na duh-duh”), Cropper was also involved in one of the coolest and later terribly embarrassing projects in the world of music/movie/TV crossovers. Cropper was the guitarist for the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd project, The Blues Brothers. While Belushi was alive, the band’s original music, TV performances and film were cool and respectable, when Belushi died, so did the magic. Avoid Blues Brothers 2000 like a hooker with leprosy ‘cause it sucks so badly. Not because of Cropper, but because that sucking pit of “I wanna be cool too!” John Goodman.

While your Johnny-come-lately guitar wannabe in the music store drooling over that new Ibanez RG may not know Cropper, many of today’s well-known and respected guitarists rate him as an influence and he often pops up in “greatest guitarist of all time” magazine articles. Listen to his tone. Listen to his tunes. It’s easy to know why.

For more on this amazing man, check out his website Play It, Steve.

Cullen forgot to take his own advice about avoiding hookers with leprosy.


November 20, 2006

Not Quite Plug and Play

When it comes to playing guitar there is so much involved in getting "the sound." Basically, you first get an amp. Second, effects. Sprinkle with liberal amounts of mojo and carry on. Sort of.

Over the course of this piece, I’m going to discuss some of the basic effects common in most popular music. I'm going to assume that clean signals are equal (which they in no way are) and talk about effects in relation to the same signal.

Starting with the recording of Rocket 88 -- considered by most music historians to be the first rock and roll song -- electric guitarists have been looking for ways to modify their sound. Some want a unique way to define their sound, some want to match the mood of the song.

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Johnny Ramone's guitar rig image is from Guitar Geeks. For the image in the context of it's original page, click here.
Eventually, as the guitar gained prominence as the main instrument in modern music, effects began to define the style of music.
Country music has a distant, jangle and employs the unmistakable whine of the steel guitar. Disco used the well-known "waka waka" sound with a wah pedal. Metal uses heavy amounts of distortion, using both overdriven amps and outboard pedals.

As time and technology has pressed on, so has the amount of gear a guitarist uses.

Guitar Geeks says this rig is circa 1990, but you know The Ramones guitar sound never changed significantly over the decades they performed. You can see that he uses no effects. He uses a signal box to change between "clean" and "overdrive" channels on his Marshall stacks.

It was very common for early punk and hard rock artists to use the amp's distortion and then add outboard effects as necessary. This practice is not quite as common today among rock artists but many heavy metal guitarists enhance amp overdrive with external distortion.

Paul Gilbert, of Racer X and Mr. Big fame, is another effects minimalist. He is from the school of old. His set-up is a great example of using the amp's natural overdrive and clean channels and modifying that sound with external effects. He uses a wah, phaser, chorus and delay to get all the sounds in his arsenal.

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Paul Gilbert's guitar rig image is from Guitar Geeks. For the image in the context of it's original page, click here.

If you are familiar with either Racer X or Mr. Big, you know what Gilbert plays. For those who aren't, he uses a chunky, thick, heavy rock sound for most songs. His solos pierce the rhythm section with great tone and texture. He's a neo-classicist and one of the greatest technical guitar players that came out of the '80s and '90s.

The following is by no means an inclusive list of effects, but is a run down a few of the more popular effects in modern music:

Distortion: Literally distorts a clean signal. It modifies the waveform of a signal by introducing odd harmonics. Some amplify the signal greatly (overdrive) or clip the peaks to impart a dirty, chunky sound. They vary in sound from the "fuzz" guitar of the '60s to the stomping thud of Pantera.

Interestingly, fuzzy guitar was first used in the song Rocket 88. As the story goes, the amp they were using broke and Sun Records producer Sam Phillips liked it and went ahead and recorded it. Since then, many guitarist have slashed speakers to get their distortion. Pete Townsend of The Who and Tony Iomi of Black Sabbath are probably the most famous examples of this practice.

Delay: A delay effect produces a copy of the signal going through and reproduces is either once (slap) or multiple times (echo). Most of these delay effect parameters can be set to either create a light echo effect similar to a reverb, a sharp, direct repeat of what is being played, a slow volume-decaying echo, or various other effects. Delay is one of the most essential effects of the modern guitarist.

Vocalists have also been known to rely on this effect. Remember this the next time you listen to Jane's Addiction.

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Joe Satriani is one of the pre-eminent guitarists of today. You can see that he uses a variety of stomp boxes and rack effects. Joe Satriani's guitar rig image is from Guitar Geeks. For the image in the context of it's original page, click here.
Multi-effects, floor

Chorus: Also creates a copy of the signal being played, but the delay time is so short that you can't hear a separation in the sound. So, the signal comes out sounding thicker, as though more than one instrument is playing. A Flange effect is similar, but creates a more liquid sound.

Phaser/Phase Shifter: Creates a "whooshing" sound in the signal. It sounds like its lightly vamping in the signal you're playing. This effect can usually be modified from light to severe.

Wah Wah Pedal: This pedal modifies the amount of a signal's frequency coming through, by use of a foot operated pedal. As the guitarist rocks the expression pedal back and forth, a higher or lower amount of the frequency is allowed through. The most typical sound is a "wah." Think of Jimi Hendrix's intro to "Voodoo Chile" for an extreme example of wah-wah use.

Octavizer: An effect witch creates a synthetic tone for the incoming signal an octave higher or lower. Sometimes, some of these effects have parameters for you to create harmony tones as well, usually called, guess it ... a harmonizer. They allow you to texture and blend different tones and usually, like a chorus, add just enough delay to sound like multiple instruments are playing.

There is a wealth of effects out there, and these barely scratch the surface, but I could spend entire posts detailing individual effects. So, moving on, I want to talk briefly about the difference between stomp boxes, multi-effect pedals and rack effects.

Stomp Boxes

As you can see in the examples above, both Johnny Ramone and Paul Gilbert use foot switches to change which channel they're playing. Well, a stomp box is similar in that it turns its signal on and off. Usually a stomp box is a single effect that is activated by, well, stomping on it. You control the amount of the effect by the knobs and such on the pedal. The signal is added to your sound by plugging your guitar into the pedal and then running the signal out of the box to the amp. The more effects you have, the more you have to daisy chain plugs before you get to the amp.

Stomp box effects are usually considered superior to multi-effect set-ups. The prices of these pedals reflect this attitude. A well-made, popular pedal can cost from $80-$150. If you want to use a lot of effects, you can see the cost can be prohibitive. However, if you break a box, you only lose one effect, which brings me to...

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Yngwie Malmsteen is considered by many to have created neo-classic metal. He is certainly one of the most pyrotechnic guitarists around today, even though he occasionally Unleashes the Fookin' Fury. Yngwie Malsteen's guitar rig image is from Guitar Geeks. For the image in the context of it's original page, click here.
Rack effects

Partially to offer a budget solution guitarists, partially to clean up the clutter of all those boxes on the floor, companies began offering multi-effect pedals and systems. The most common multi-effect floor systems combine several effects, several different "amp sounds," the ability to dial in your own unique combinations of these effects, multiple pedals to change between effects and sometimes an expression pedal to modify the effect you're using.

The benefits to using a multi-effect system are varied. You don't have a bunch of pedals all over the place. You plug into one device and out to your amp (or other effects, if you want). The cost is almost always cheaper than buying stomp boxes to get all the same effects. And, now, the higher-end multi-effect systems offer digital recording options, computer hookups, drum machines and many other features.

The downside is that most of these systems are considered to have inferior sound in comparison to their stomp box cousins. They also don't tend to be as flexible as the individual effect pedals. However, a lot of this is changing. As technology progresses, the gap is steadily closing. I remember that in the late '80s, no one wanted multi-effect floor effects. Some of them might have been good, but they were looked upon with such disdain, that there were few models around. But today, Digitech's GNX3 and GNX4 are considered the "industry standard" effect systems for the amateur guitarist. The greatest downside is that if you break one of these, you lose EVERYTHING.

Rack systems are, or were, considered the Holy Grail of effects. They generally have the best technology of their time, are the best built and, logically, cost the most. I say, "were," because now there are a lot of very high-end multi-effect floor systems and single effect pedals. Technology is becoming the great equalizer. The reason the rack effects were considered better, is that they are the ones that tended to contain vacuum tubes. Tube, analog, or A/D effect systems are considered superior by most. Many guitarists like the "warmth" of a tube tone. Personally I think that's bullshit. I think a solid state sounds every bit as good or better than tube amps/effects pre-amp these days. Technology is the great equalizer.

Basically, the rack effects are similar to a stereo component system mounted into a metal rack. These rack components do different things. One might be a multi-effects system that you can use a floor pedal board to change effects. One might just be a delay system. There are line conditioners. There are power conditioners. There are many, many different rack effects out there. And you are going to pay for them.

The upside to rack systems is that they tend to offer the greatest variety of combinations and effects. The downside is that they are generally very expensive, require a rack mount to be very portable, and sometimes require external items to operate well.

This article was run because Ernie asked me to. If you have any special requests, feel free to let me know.


Cullen really is all about the guitar. And he writes here almost daily.


November 13, 2006

Vernon Reid

One my first music teachers told me that anyone can be taught to play the guitar. She was right. Just about anyone can be taught the basic chords and how to strum along to the 4/4 time of most popular music. What she didn't say is that very few people become good guitarists. And fewer people still have the motivation, talent and drive to become great guitarists.

There is a difference between a good or really good guitarist and a great one. A good guitarist knows everything that a great one does. He can play the things the great ones do. He can sound just like the great one. The difference is that the great ones create their own sound. The create tunes to be emulated. They make music that other people want to sound like -- a distinct way of playing, their sound, their tone, their choice of notes, scales and chords.

Pick up a Rolling Stones album. You know what "Keef" sounds like. You know that jangly, special, five-string Fender Tele is about to start you up. Gilmour can stike a note and let it ring forever and you know it's him. You know by the quality of the note. Hendrix assaulted us with feedback-laden, just out of tune notes and chords. It was a constant sonic barrage. No one plays like Hendrix. Steve Vai pops notes. Vai can play like anyone but you still know it's Vai. He's the only person I can think of that can do that.

The point I am making is that many good guitarists make a good deal of money in music. Many good guitarists have performed in songs that have gone down in the pantheon of all-time favorites. But we never remember their names. Great guitarists may write music that gets dated fast, or music that sticks around forever -- regardless of what they play, we remember their name.

Vernon Reid is that kind of guitarist. Unique. His music bounces and frolics. It meanders like a kid in a candy store. Sometimes it spots exactly what it wants and pleads for it. Sometimes it rolls through the aisles haphazardly, finding its course as it goes, but maintaining sharp focus on the matter at hand.

Reid plays aggressive or soft. Heavy metal, soul or jazz. But you know who's fretting the notes because he's distinct in his presentation. He has a wild picking style and his playing may sound sloppy at first, but you soon realize it's intentional. Everything he strums has the exact amount of clarity he envisions. He cleverly pulls back when needed. Some guitarists never realize that sometimes it what you don't play that's important.

Making a name for himself as the guitarist for Living Colour, Reid and the band burst onto the scene with the 1988 release of Vivid which included the smash hit Cult of Personality. They followed it up with the critically acclaimed sophomore release Time's Up and rode the success for years even being included in the 1991 Lalapalooza line-up. But after the first couple of years of the '90s, the band began to fade from the public eye. They released Stain in 1993 and it received mixed reviews (though it is my personal favorite LC album). It was the first LC album to feature super-bassist Doug Wimbish.

What followed Stain was a decade of greatest hit releases until the band reformed and release CollideOscope in 2003. The musical future of Living Colour is unknown, but Vernon Reid continues to play releasing solo albums and doing a lot of work with other musicians.

It's impossible to separate Reid from his work empowering black music history. He co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and solidly acknowledges his musical roots.

Suggested Listenings:

Cult Of Personality, Vivd (1988)

Type, Time's Up (1990)

Ignorance Is Bliss, Stain (1993)

Nothingness, Stain (1993)

His solo album Known Unknown (2004)

Cullen really is all about the guitar. And he writes here almost daily.


November 6, 2006

Raw and Smooth or Sticky and Safe ?

Raw and Smooth or Sticky and Safe? A quick and dirty guide to guitar necks

Have you ever walked out to an old wood deck that hasn’t been taken care of very well? The wood is splitting and splintered. It’s spreading out from years of water and gunk expanding and contracting inside all of its pores and grain. Well, if you play a guitar with an unfinished neck you are chancing doing the same thing to it.

When you play your guitar, you are transferring oil, dirt and anything else that’s on your hands onto your guitar neck. On a finished neck, this grime builds up on the surface creating a sticky residue. On an unfinished neck, this gunk works its way into the grain of the wood and over time can cause warping, cracking and splintering.

So, what do you do?

You could always play a well-finished neck – the kind found on most Gibson and Gibson knock-off guitars. I play on such a neck. To be honest, it’s not my favorite. My earliest playing experiences were with Ibanez and Jacksons who both sport a lot of unfinished necks. But, having witnessed firsthand what can happen to an unfinished neck, I was happy to have that extra protection.

If you have a guitar with a deep finish, the most important thing is to always have a polishing cloth with you. Wipe down that neck often. The extra polishing will help keep the playing surface smooth and free of grime.

Some necks appear to be unfinished, but actually have a satin finished neck. This is a coat of lacquer that’s been textured. It’s not exactly smooth, but it doesn’t hinder you’re playing either. At first, it doesn’t seem to stick to your hand or anything. The problem with this finish is that over time, the grime from you hands will build up in the textured finish and you’ll begin having the same problems that you do with a finished neck. The problem with this textured finish is that cleaning it is far more difficult than a clear, flat finish. Sometimes, a polishing cloth won’t get the gunk out very well and a cleaning solution may have to be used. Be careful and make sure to only use products that have been specifically manufactured for instrument cleaning. You can damage the finish or your instrument if you use cleaning products that are intended for other thing, such as furniture polish.

If you have an unfinished neck, there are a couple of things you can do. The most important thing to do is to use a polishing cloth after every time you play. If you have sweaty hands, use the cloth often during play. When you notice that the grime is building up, you can sand your neck lightly with a small-grained sandpaper. This will remove most
of the surface grime, but will not take care of any of the stuff that’s building up in the guitarneck.jpggrain. This is okay for a while, but eventually sanding is just not an option as you are taking away from the thickness of the neck.

Personally, I think the best option is to use a light coat of Tung Oil. Tung oil is a wood finisher that is made up of pure tung oil and varnish. You can use very light coats on your guitar neck that will leave an almost satin-like feel to it. Over time, the finish wears, all you have to do clean the neck and re-apply another light coat of finish. Of course, you still have some of the problems with gunk forming, and you’ll still have to keep that polishing cloth handy, but to me, it’s the best balance between a raw and finished neck.

In the end, it all comes down to what’s important to you. How long do you plan to keep the instrument? What is your personal preference?

If you’re playing a $200 - $500 instrument, it may not be that important to you, but if you’ve dropped over a grand on a new guitar, you probably want to protect that investment.

Cullen writes daily here and covets all fine wood crafts. Archives

October 29, 2006

A Gallery of Ghoulish Guitars

Guitarists tend to be a pretty conservative bunch.

Before you jump to any conclusions, listen to me. Look at the popular guitars through history. There hasn't been a whole lot of change in their shapes over time, has there? We get some different paint here and there, but guitarists tend to like the tried and true.

Keeping with the theme of the upcoming ghoulish holiday, I'm going to celebrate some of the more unique guitar styles that have been produced. Rock music has always had an affinity for the macabre, gothic, and downright evil, so I present 10 Ghoulish Guitars:

1. The B.C. Rich Warlock

This Warlock will not grant you any musical powers.

Come on. You knew this one had to be number one. How many "evil" bands have you seen play these? King Diamond, Merciful Fate, Slayer, GWAR … the list continues. It wasn't the first evil-looking guitar, but it has definitely become the gold standard of them.

2. The J. Frog Skull and Bones guitar

We’re the Dream Warriors. Ain't gonna dream no more.

The first time you saw this guitar was in the video for Dokken’s "Dream Warriors" from the Nightmare on Elm Street 3 soundtrack. Most people think that this guitar was made by ESP, and they did in fact produce a look-alike model. But the real Skull and Bones guitar is made by JFrog and is sold through Ed Roman Guitars (too lazy to hotlink … Google it beeyotches). Anyway, George Lynch was under an endorsement contract with ESP and when they shot the "Dream Warriors" video, he had to swap out the neck on the guitar. Hence the confusion.

One damn cool guitar though.

3. Jackson Roswell Rhodes guitar

Possibly I've seen too much, Hangar 18, I know too much.

The Roswell Rhodes is a twist on Jackson’s popular Randy Rhodes-style V guitar. The V itself is probably one of the top 3 "evil" guitars played in rock and metal, but this takes it a step further by using "alien" imagery. The inlays on the fretboard are crop circles and the this guitar is plated with aircraft aluminum to give it an otherworldly look. The tuners are LSR gearless precision tuners making it look all that much more different.

4. Gibon SG

Satan smiling spreads his wings.

The original "evil" guitar. Bands such as Black Sabbath and AC/DC are primarily responsible for the SG’s place as the original six-string symbol of all that is rotten. When originally introduced in 1961 it was supposed to be a replacement for the original Les Paul. The SG bore the name "Les Paul" for that year, but in 1962, after Les Paul's contract with Gibson lapsed, they changed the name to SG (for solid guitar).

The double cutaway gives the guitar a bat-wing appearance. And, as we all know, those flying rodent creatures of the night are just plain evil.

5. Abstract Guitars Pagan Gothic

I don’t play … classical.

Perhaps derivative of the SG, this modern monster is a true ghoulish delight. It is made by Ed Roman guitars and is sold with the coffin case which helps the image, of course. There are also non-gothic models of this guitar offered, but I do think this one looks most wicked.

6. Schecter S-1 Devil Tribal

How evil can you be?

This guitar, as far as I can tell, is no longer offered by Schecter. But the basic body shape is still available in their S-1 model. However, you no longer get the evil-looking headstock or this super cool tribal inlay. Not in their base Diamond series models anyway.

You can see that this guitar borrows a lot from a lot of other guitars. The body size seems very Les Paul influenced, but the double cut horns have a very SG shape to them. The headstock seems influenced by B.C. Rich. But the cool thing about Schecter is that they offered all these cool things, and really good hardware, at a very good price. At least they used to.

7. The Zorax Jackson

What the hell is this guitar doing?

I'm not even sure where this guitar came from. It has to have been a custom shop order. But how neat is that? It just looks like some evil alien, fish thingy. Who would even play this? GWAR?

8. Damien Death Cross

If you wanna find hell with me …

Definitely one of the more radical ways to express your Satanic tendencies via lutherie, the Damien Death Cross is another offering from Ed Roman's Abstract Guitars. Certainly plays on themes common among the "evil." You could just picture King Diamond or Slayer throwing down on one of these.

9. Gene Simmons Axe Bass

Burn with me. Taking you higher.

How can you have a list of ghoulish guitars and not include the Axe bass? Luthier Steve Carr created the bass for Simmons and it has become iconic. Truly a symbol of outlandish rock and roll.

10. Heavy metal

Heavy metal, man. What more can you say?

So, you thought a fake guitar axe was enough, huh? This guitar was created by knife maker Steve Licata for Ed Roman. Roman claims that he can have custom guitars like this made by Licata starting at an economical $2,500. He says that if he were to price this one, it would go for around $6,000.

Sorry, I don’t need to chop someone’s head off while playing a blazing solo.

Cullen plays an axe and writes daily over here.


October 23, 2006

There Be Some Scary Guitarists

You know, rock and roll guitarists are, for the most part, pasty, skinny dudes with little muscle tone who got beat up a lot in high school. Maybe it’s the dedication to their instrument (yeah, right) or all the drugs (ding­-ding-ding), but whatever the case, there are a lot of scrawny six stringers out here.

And then there are the exceptions to that rule. Fat, built or just plain not-scrawny, there are many guitarists that don’t fit the stereotype that Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes set. And then there are those, who for some reason or another (or several) have gone beyond the pale in contrast to the typical guitarist image. So, in this Halloween themed edition of BIAAtG, I present the following list of scary guitarists.

1. Zakk Wylde

This is what Zakk used to look like in his early days with Ozzy.

This is what he looks like now:

He went from someone who looks like they might have been the prison bitch to looking like the prison butch. It’s not hard for me to believe that Zakk regularly gets wasted and kicks people in the head. Maybe he doesn’t, but it’s a fun thing to think about. Especially if the kick-ees are members of Def Leppard and especially if it’s that one-armed drummer dude because that would be damn funny.

2.Scott Ian
Scott Ian is not scary himself, but it has been said that his goatee has developed a consciousness and that when Scott sleeps the goatee roams the Earth seeking the blood of the innocent.

Did you ever see that episode of the Tick where the Tick gets a mustache and it begins dragging him around and doing stuff in his sleep and it turns out that the mustache has sentience and it winds up hooking up with a dude who has a sentient beard? Well, Scott’s goatee is like that. Except it’s like if the goatee from that episode was a Dr. Frankenstein goatee and created a monster goatee on Scott’s face. That’s what this is like.

We should all fear that goatee. I mean, have you seen an episode of VH1’s I Love the XXs lately? You remember that dude who used to do that thing? Haven’t seen him in a while have you? It was the goatee dude.

3. Buckethead

Admit it. You find that blank, plastic face and KFC bucket combination disturbing. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I mean, just look at Slipknot. There’s a bunch of guys that proved to us that just by putting on scary masks and playing hardcore metal doesn’t make you any less of a dork. Idiots. But I digress.

A KFC bucket and a damn plastic mask. I mean, it just feels like this is a guy who’d be backing up Michael Myers in Halloween: A Very Guitar Massacre or some shit. Add to that that the guy’s a really good guitarist and you have a freaking creepy combination.

4. C.C. DeVille

Come on. Do I really have to say anything here? I didn’t think so.

5. Keith Richards

Definitive proof that the walking dead exist. Although the dude is scary as fuck, and looks like he smells really bad, you gotta hand it to a guy that risks total evisceration by sunlight to put on a show for his fans.
Honorable Mentions:
Kerry King of Slayer, for the exact same reason as Scott Ian, except that Ian’s goatee kicked the shit out King’s beard and therefore won the spot on the list. Chris Holmes from WASP, cause anyone who could survive both drinking that much and that scene in Decline of Western Civilization Part II deserves to be feared. Dave Mustaine because anyone who can be that much of a prick and still put out music that damn good is pretty spooky. Joe Perry of Aerosmith, there is some doubt as to his walking dead status but you should probably stake his heart just to be safe.


Cullen is the best looking guitarist this side of the Mississippi. He writes daily over here.


October 16, 2006

Getting Amped Up Over The Sound

Because I’m All About the Guitar: Getting Amped up Over the Sound

Getting the right sound is important to guitarists. Making your own guitar sound, your "unique" tone is the goal of all aspiring six-string slingers. However, how important are the minutiae? How important is that all-tube amp? How important are those super shielded, gold-plated-connector cables? How important is a separate head and cabinet vs. a combo unit?

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For many, Marshall stacks are the gold standard of rock guitar amplification. In many ways they are. Just about every band from Hendrix, The Stones and The Who to Iron Maiden and Slayer have used or do use Marshall amplification. They build solid products with dependable sound.
My answer to this -- again MYanswer -- is not that freaking much. Honestly, I hear people talk all the time about tube amps vs. solid state. I hear all the arguments for and against using the best, most expensive equipment you can get your hands on. Well, you know why that shit sounds better? Because it's the best built, not necessarily the best technology.

The guitar world is famous for this creation of mojo. They construct a really good product, but to get people interested in forking out the extra bucks, they have to come up with some kind of gimmick to sell it the hungry masses. They add gold plated connectors to their high-end cables and get BIG NAME GUITARIST to endorse the product. Suddenly a rush of young wannabes all have to be playing Gold Plates: The 24-karat cable or some such.

Now, I am not saying that the Tube vs. Solid State argument is exactly like this, but it's similar. There is a difference in sound between tubes and solid state. You can hear tubes hum. You can tell the influence they have on sound. An old tube will negatively color your sound. Conversely, you can tell when a solid-state amp is playing. It's sharper and lacks the warmth that so many guitarists associate with tubes. But this is also a broad generalization.

Tube amps and heads are the Holy Grail of guitarists. And I will tell you without a doubt, almost every tube amp out there is better than every solid-state amp out there. I believe the reason has everything to do with quality of construction and very little to do with tube or solid-state technologies.

You look at almost any amplifier manufacturer's line of products and can see that their budget models are all solid state, while their high-end models are all tube. So, predictably, one of the upsides of tube amps is the quality of manufacture. There is a lot of history in tube amps and guitar playing, so musicians are always going to want to tap into that as much as possible. They are also going to emulate their idols, who are using tube products.

Of course, a great majority of these idols are getting their tube products for free because of endorsement deals, but that's part of the biz. A major drawback is that tube amps are power hungry. That is, a tube amp requires more power to produce its rated wattage. Another issue is that vacuum tubes break, blow out or lose vacuum. You have to replace them frequently and check them often. Which mean that if you gig a lot, you should have back up tubes on hand or you could be in trouble.

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Line 6 products vary from combo amplifiers, heads and cabinets, effects to synthesizer guitars. They make quality products and are always on the cutting edge of technology. Their POD guitar/computer interfaces is an innovative step to home recording or just playing around with computer effects.
Tubes can get expensive too. Prices range from $10 - $80 but there is a JJ/Tesla model out there I've seen running for over $200 (per tube!). Also, different tubes can effect sound quality and overall volume.

Solid state amps take guitar electronics out of the 1950s and puts them firmly in the next couple of decades. I am no electrical engineer, but I do know that solid-state electronics is a more reliable and economic way of routing power. Most guitarists had problems with the way solid-state amps sounded in comparison to tubes. They were dry, didn't have the depth of sound that tube amps have and the overdriven channels lacked the punch that tubes gave.

However, technology gets cheap. Technology gets better. Fast. Nowadays you have spring-reverb loaded, heavy-overdrive ready amps that rival tube amps in sound and size. They also usually deliver more power, cheaper. Solid states also have a good life-span.

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Fender has long made great guitars and great guitar products. They have always had an eye on engineering products for the working guitarist. The Cyber Twin combines tube and solid state technologies to produce great sound and high output.
Honestly, I have no idea why tube amps sell so much better. They simply aren't that much better sounding. And you can pick up a solid state that does more or is bigger, cheaper. But, they don't tend to be built as well as the tube amps are. So, some people are attracted to the quality in the tubes, which makes sense.

There is an exception to this rule. Line 6's amps are made of a comparable quality to Fender and Marshall's line of combos, heads and cabinets. They are a make completely solid-state based products that have TONS of effects and amp/cabinet models built in - which is another benefit to solid state tech: built in effects.

Of course, there is always a best of both worlds out there and that is usually the tube/solid state combos. Fender has a popular line of amps called the Cyber Twin. They combine a tube pre-amp and a solid-state power amp producing a tube sound with the benefits of solid state power. They also include a lot of digital effects.

The end state of all of this is that mojo is really in you, the consumer. What do you like? What do you want? Are you going to let an aggressive marketing campaign decide what your sound is going to be?

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While Marshall may still be considered the gold standard Mesa Boogie products are hot its heels. Most who have played or heard Mesas swear by the sound. John Petrucci plays 'em, nuff said.
Get out there and play a lot of amps. Play the same songs. Play using the same effects. Play using no effects. Play using the same guitar, preferably your own so you have a base idea of sound and attack quality.

Having written all that, if I could afford a Mesa
Triple Rectifier
there would be on in my home right now.

See you next week.

Cullen writes daily at Half a Pica Distance


October 9, 2006

Reeves Gabrels

I'M ALL ABOUT THE GUITAR- - Playing, buying, listening, learning. If you play - even air guitar - this one's for you. by Cullen

I love these old<br />
advertisements.What in the hell is he doing to that guitar?

I have seen drills, vacuum tubes, and violin bows applied to the guitar. I have seen wild exploits by many an axe-man, but there are only two I can think of who constantly apply ingenuity and innovation to rethink the way the guitar is meant to be played. One of those two is the most underrated guitarist on the planet: Reeves Gabrels.

The other is Tom Morello, who has gotten far more attention from the popular crowd, but I think is the inferior guitarist. That is, of course, my opinion. Feel free to disagree.

The first time I ever saw Gabrels was around 1988 or '89, when David Bowie eschewed more stylistic music and gave us some good old hard rock via the band Tin Machine. Well, there were a couple of good songs, but overall the band lacked the cohesiveness needed to sell the band. However, Gabrels continued to work with Bowie and produced two of the coolest albums of the '90s – Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997).

Where Outside introduced Bowie's entrance into the modern electronica/techno musical field of the '90s, it was an unsteady and uneven album. But it was a commercial success. Eathling wasn't half the commercial success, but is a far better album. Tracks such as "Little Wonder," "I'm Afraid of Americans," and "Seven Years in Tibet" were fantastic songs.

Gabrels has long been a user and endorser of Parker Fly guitars. The sounds he gets out of them sure are a sound endorsement. Listening to "Little Wonder," you wonder at some of the sounds that Reeves got from his guitar. If you happened to see Bowie perform on Saturday Night Live in this era, you got to see Reeves rip out some wild guitar work.

Reeves has written guitar columns for different guitar magazines through the years. Usually his topics are about getting the most out of your instrument by rethinking how you play it. I happened upon one of his articles quite by accident many years ago. He talked about fretting your strings past the frets – using the edge of your neck and bridge pickups to fret the note. Things like this are hallmarks of his playing style.

Sure, Robert Fripp from King Crimson and others have a long history of exploring new ways of playing, but guys like Gabrels really reinvented the way that people look at the guitar.

Cullen writes daily at Half a Pica Distance

October 2, 2006


One of the easiest, simplest things you can do to your guitar is one of the most important. Many guitarists, new and old, don't realize what you should check whenyou restring and the process you should go through when re-stringing.

Simply taking strings off and putting new ones on is doing an injustice to your instrument. Keeping your guitar in tune and in tone has a lot to do with a lot of things, so take re-stringing as a time to check all the things you need to keep your guitar combat ready.

The first thing I do is de-string the guitar. Most of the time, you should wrap the strings and discard them, but I have an old habit of saving back one set of strings. I always wrap the string enough times that I can re-use them with creative weaving) if they break somewhere. Saving old strings gives me a quick replacement if I don't want to break open a new set of strings. There are actually a couple of bad things about this. First, when you string the guitar, you shouldn't wind the string too many times at the tuning peg. It will dull your sustain. Second, these used strings sound like shit when re-used. But it's a habit from my old poor boy days. These days it has more to do with habit though.

So, get those strings off and do with them what you will. Next, clean your instrument. Get some canned air and spray it down. A soft-bristled paint brush is great for brushing more stubborn dust out of crevices. You may not care about the looks of your guitar, but removing grime and dust will prolong its life.

The next thing you should do is check the tightness of the screws on your guitar. Get a screwdriver that fits the screws properly and make sure to not over-tighten anything. I like to work on the guitar from the top down, so I look at the tuning peg screws first. There are varying amounts of screws for the different kind of pegs. But those little screws will snap easily, so, again do not over-tighten anything. If the guitar has string trees and/or locking nut, check any screws there.

Then I'll work my way down to the pickups. These should already be adjusted but you might want to double check there. Last, I'll check the screws in the bridge – especially if it's a tremolo. You don't want to mess with any of the adjustment screws at this time, but you want to make sure that any screws that hold something in place are tight.

Now that you've checked those things, you're ready to put on a new set of strings. It doesn't really matter if you work from treble string to bass strings or what. Just make sure to put the right string in the right place (how many times have you made that error?). Regardless of what kind of peg head you have (3 x 3, 6 in line, 4 x 2), you should always turn the tuning peg so that the strings pull to the inside of the peg head.

For the absolute best intonation, without a locking nut, you should allow for as few turns of the tuning peg as possible. As stated earlier, this isn't a rule I normally follow, but it's best. You can allow more turns for bass strings than treble.
Tune your guitar.

Now, you should check that your neck has the proper bow. This will require assistance. With the guitar in playing position – in your lap as though you were going to play it, or on a strap around you – have a friend hold down one of the outside strings (low or high E) at the first and last fret. Try and slide a playing card under the string at the seventh fret. The card should barely fit underneath. If it is too tight or too loose, you'll need to adjust the truss rod.

The truss rod will be at the top of the guitar, where the headstock meets the neck; at the bottom of the neck under the neck pickup; or at the bottom of the neck where you'll have to de-string and remove the neck. Fortunately, most of the time, once the bow is set, and you use the same gauge strings, you shouldn't have to adjust too often.

If the string was too close to the playing card, you'll need to turn the truss rod counter clockwise. You should only turn the truss rod slightly (1/10 of a turn is the suggested amount) and recheck the adjustment after every turn. If it's too far away from the card, turn clockwise.

Once you're dialed in, tune back up. You should check your string/nut height. Take that same playing card and check the distance between the string and the first fret. Again, you should have just barely enough room to slip the card in. If it's too tight, you might need to replace the nut. If it's too high, you might be able to file the slot down a bit. If you're using a locking nut, you can't really file anything down. You'll have to remove the nut to do any serious work. I suggest taking your guitar to a professional for any of this work.

The last thing you should do is set/check your guitar's intonation. I've already written up a
lengthy piece on that
, so check that piece out for information on intonation.

Oh, before you stand up to play, check the tightness of the screws in your strap-locks.

This may all seem like a lot of work, but the more you do it, the more it become part of a routine. Your guitar is an investment and, more than that, something that you want to be able to rely on when it's needed. This is like regularly scheduled maintenance for your guitar. By keeping up on it, a quality instrument should give you a lifetime of playing pleasure.

I stole a lot of my process information from this Project Guitar series. Check
out the site as there is plenty of cool stuff there.

September 25, 2006

Hurtin' your feelings edition – Chet Atkins

There are guitarists out there that just make you feel bad. That is, they are just so damn good that any accomplishment you have made pales in comparison to their skill, talent, dedication and achievements. chet.jpgThere are Wes Montgomery's cascading notes, Les Paul's killer tone and tasteful licks, Dave Gilmour's economically chosen notes, and many others. Chet Atkins is a leader among these guitarists. A man of such talent and such good taste, we'll be talking about his playing for decades to come.

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September 18, 2006

My Stuff Bag

cullen1.jpgThis is my stuff bag. Sure, I got it free when I joined the Book of the Month club, but it doesn't really matter what king of freakin' bag it is. Just that the bag works for you. I don't care how nice that guitar case or gig bag is. If you play outside your home, you have a guitar stuff bag. Something you use to throw your cables and other gear into.

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September 11, 2006

Gretsch Guitars


This is a repost from my site from about a year ago - expect this to happen every once in a while - and covers one of my favorite guitar companies:

greshmain.jpgAfter writing a post about The Reverend Horton Heat, I decided talk a little bit about Gretsch guitars. Guitarists are known to be particular about getting certain sounds. They attach themselves to certain pieces of equipment -- guitars, pedals, strings, amps, speakers, etc. Gretsch, every bit as much as Gibson and Fender, are responsible for a lot of those cool guitar sounds we grew up loving.

Some of the biggest names in guitar ever have played Gretsch: Chet Atkins, George Harrison, Bo Didley, Chris Cornell, Django Reinhardt, Neil Young, Brian Setzer among others. There's something cool, undeniably Gretsch about those Filtertron pickups. You can hear it in strumming, in the decay of those single notes. Sure, some guitars sound similar, but nothing sounds exactly like a Gretsch.

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September 1, 2006


For the benefit of those who haven't read my site (shameless plug uberlink), I love the guitar and write about it often.

I've been plucking away on the gee-tree since I was 15 years old. But I suck. I don't have the natural talent or the passion to play. I do have the love of the instrument though. I love the way they look. I love the way they sound. I love the way they feel and smell. I love to research the history of the guitar. I love to learn about building them (even though my woodworking skills are more meager than my guitar playing). What I lack in ability, I make up for in research.

I want to find out why things sound the way they do. I want to know how to get those sounds and I like to, in my own way, help out those who are trying to play better or are in the pursuit of purchasing a guitar.

These articles will cover the guitar, guitarists and guitar-centric things and thoughts. As this is my inaugural BIAAtG here at Faster Than the World, I wanted to cover something in line with the site name.

Continue reading "Whiplash" »

August 25, 2006

Afghan jam
by: cullen

It's hard to be away from home for months and years at a time.... Sometimes it's the little things you take with you that help you get through... Cullen knows that sometimes it's not....

The hadji-ee-ee don’t like it, rock the chapel, rock the chapel

Believe it or not, I'm walking on air. I never thought I could feel so free.For those of you who don’t know, I spent 10 years in the Army. A significant chunk of my last year in was spent deployed to Afghanistan.

I was a REMF, a pogue, a leg, a garrison puke.

However, I was deploying out of Fort Polk, and during my tenure had spent a lot of time in the "box" at the Joint Readiness Training Center. By the time we deployed, I had about as much field time as any infantry troop. One of the things I knew was that to survive long deployments, you needed to take as many comfort items as possible.

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by: cullen" »

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