Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Taming of the Shrill: How to Rein in the Extra Brightness of an Offset Guitar

Whether it’s fawning over custom colored Jags or addressing some playability problem on a Jazzmaster, it’s safe to say we talk a lot about offset Fender guitars. It’s been an honor to help guitarists understand the quirks associated with them, yet one such quirk we’ve not addressed previously is the tonal range of these guitars.

While it’s true that both the Jaguar and Jazzmaster are capable of some truly bright trebles, they’re also capable of some deep, complex low end. Newcomers to the sound often home in on that brightness and fear that they’ve bought a guitar they can’t use. If that’s you then I’m here to help.

In no particular order, here’s a short list of ideas to help you tame the shrill from your offset Fender guitar. But before we dig in, I’d like to note that guitars being the sum of their parts, the suggestions I’m about to make likely won’t offer a night-and-day change in the sound of your guitar. To put a numerical value to it, you may find that they only amount to a 5% difference, but that could be the 5% you need.

This list may be offset-centric, but these suggestions can apply to just about any guitar.


Examine Your Amp Settings

We guitar players can be rather superstitious. Once we find that sound in our heads, once we settle on those ‘magic’ numbers, it seems like sacrilege to deviate. If this is you, take a deep breath and get centered because the very first suggestion I have for those afflicted by harsh treble frequencies is to simply dial them out.

For symptoms of excessive brightness my prescription is to start with the Presence, assuming your amp has this control. Presence knobs govern the very top of the top end (around 3-7khz-7khz) and as such turning down this knob can have a dramatic effect on undesirable ice-pick frequencies.

Treble controls most often govern the more tuneful highs in of a guitar signal (typically 1.5khz-4khz) so you may find that pruning too much here kills some pleasantness. Still, with the ample treble produced by Jazzmasters and Jaguars, you may find that you won’t need as much to keep things defined.

Now, your instinct may be to roll up the Bass knob and that may certainly help a thinned-out guitar, but be careful not to use this as a catch-all solution. Guitars generally live in the upper EQ bands of a mix, and while punishing low end sounds (and feels) great on its own, you also run the risk of muddying up a full band sound by boosting bass too much. Remember to leave space for other instruments.

You can also try utilizing the tone controls of drive pedals in the same way, cutting highs before you hit the amp. Using a darker pedal or settings before a bright amp can yield some lovely tones, or if you’re the kind that likes bright cleans and dense overdrive, this may be the way to go.


Roll Off that Tone

 Knob

I think a lot of folks have been emotionally scarred by the cheap electronics of affordable instruments, but there’s really no reason to fear the humble variable low-pass filter. Sure, a bad tone control can do sickening things to the sound of a beloved instrument; a good one can be an effective secret weapon.

I’ve long maintained that the stock Jazzmaster tone control is one of the most usable ones around. The combination of the 1meg linear potentiometer and a 333 capacitor just seems to dial out the exact high end frequencies that my ears find so unpalatable without sacrificing clarity.

It may help if you think of your tone control as a taste control instead; depending on your musical situation, you can really change the flavor of your guitar’s response to fit the moment. On my personal Jazzmasters, I leave the Tone knob at 6 or 7 as my basic sound and if I need a thicker sound, backing off to 4 or 5 does the trick. If I need twang, rolling up to 10 is almost like picking up a really good Telecaster. I’ve even gone so far as to install Gibson-style pointers on my Thin Skin Jazzmaster so that I can take note of exact settings.

When used in tandem with some smart amp-based EQ whittling, these first two suggestions may be all the only bits of the list you’ll ever need.

Try New Strings

Most people can throw down $5-$7 on a set of strings once in a while, and if you’re feeling blue about your tone, changing up your string brand or gauge is one of the most effective tweaks you can make.

Every brand has their own feel and sound, so it’s worth experimenting a bit. Say you’re a devotee of nickel plated strings but you’re getting a little too much zing. Try a set of pure nickel strings next time around, which tend to be warmer. If 10s lack some low end thump, try stepping up a gauge. Flats, ground-round, coated and uncoated, different metals… There’s a whole world of options out there. Go nuts.

Swap Pots

A common mod you’ll hear about from Jazzmaster owners in particular is tossing the stock 1meg volume and tone pots out for a lower value. Doing so warms up your guitar’s sound by shaving off a bit of the volume and high end response.

When I’m explaining the basics of how pots work to a customer, I liken them to the flood gate of a dam. If the gate’s wide open, it lets all of the water through, while closing the gate permits only a trickle. The value of potentiometers does something similar.

A pickup wired straight to the output jack is what I’d call ‘wide open’ – the full signal coming from your pickup is going to the amp without restriction. When you introduce a volume pot you’re limiting how ‘open’ that gate can be. A 1meg pot is pretty close to wide open, letting a lot more signal pass than 500k, and 500k passes more than 250k. It’s because of this that we often pair certain pot values with different types of pickups (i.e. 250k for singles and 500k for humbuckers).

The stock value for your Jazzmaster or Jaguar is 1meg, which has much to do with the bright tone of these guitars. When you swap out for a lower pot value, you’re shifting the resonant peak frequency lower, invoking a warmer sound. Stepping down to 500K is enough of a change for many players, but going all the way to 250 shaves off an even greater amount of high end.

For an example of what lower pot values can do for you, Nels Cline’s famous “Watt” Jazzmaster has 250k pots, which works perfectly for a man known for hating treble.

My signature Redbeard cable from our pals at Sinasoid, available through Mike & Mike’s!

Ditch the Lossless Cables

While the arguments surrounding the effect of cables on tone are never-ending, it makes perfect sense that anything between your guitar and amp could alter your tone. And while many cable companies boast ultra-low capacitance, conductors made from rare materials, or instrument-specific lines, many of the most influential musicians of the last 50 years used whatever they could find to make that all-important connection.

Hendrix’ use of long, coiled cables is one of the examples many point to when citing how a cable can have a huge impact on the sound of a guitar. Coiled cables by nature are actually much, much longer than similar standard cables––there’s almost three times the material between the plugs! As a result, the signal from the guitar has to travel a much longer distance to reach its destination, and thus, increased capacitance. The greater the capacitance, the less high end that is transmitted through the cable.

Capacitance is no joke and is something worth considering when you buy a cable. That said, ultra-low capacitance may not be the best choice for everyone. When our pals at Sinasoid offered to design signature cables for the shop, I specifically asked for a longer, higher capacitance cable than what I was used to, and I couldn’t be happier. So ditch the buffer and short leads and see what happens.


Swap Pickups

A lot of players ask me for recommendations on darker Jazzmaster pickups, and usually the first four names out of my mouth are Lollar, Novak, Antiquity, and At-The-Creamery. Each of these manufacturers offer superior sound to most stock units and have tons of options even for Jaguars.

For those looking for vintage-correct tones, Duncan’s Antiquity Is beautifully capture the sound of a 60-year-old black-bobbin pickup, louder and darker than the IIs which emulate the brighter grey-bobbin pickups of the late 1960s. Comparing the Antiquity Is to the pickups in my ’61 Jazzmaster, they’re damn close. Of course, Duncan has many different Jazzmaster pickups.

Lollar’s standard Jazzmaster set is a lot like a 60-year-old pickup when it was brand new: healthy output with a bit more top end, as well as the signature Lollar midrange bump. I have these installed in my 2007 Thin Skin Jazzmaster and couldn’t be happier. Lollar also offer one hell of a Jazzmaster-sized P90.

If you need something weird, my friend Curtis Novak is my first choice. Curtis has a knack for stuffing non-standard pickup designs under a stock Jazzmaster cover, from Mosrite and Gold Foils to dummy-pole humbuckers. He’s a miracle worker.

Jaime from At-The-Creamery in the UK is a fantastic option for those who like to get into the nitty gritty details of pickup making, allowing the player to choose things like magnet type and output. He does brilliant work to boot.

Of course, each of these makers offer a wide range of pickups for all guitars.

Have you tried plugging into the Bass channel?

Try Darker Amps

With the popularity of the boutique amp market and its affinity for “jangle” it’s bit more difficult to find amps with a focus on low end and low-mids rather than trebles. I realize that not everyone can just get a different amp at the drop of a hat – I’m no spendthrift either – but if you find yourself in a position to consider a new or additional amp, then I have a few suggestions for you.

For smaller tube amps, the Fender Blues Jr. Lacquered Tweed is equipped with a 50 watt Jensen speaker, which offers less speaker breakup and a lot more low end than you might expect from such a small cabinet. I also highly recommend the Excelsior Pro, made in the tradition of 1950s low-wattage combo amps and reviled by some for its tonal inflexibility. Still, that 15” speaker sounds huge even at modest volumes and the amp loves pedals. They go for next to nothing on the used market.

For a mid-size amp, the Peavey Classic series tends to be overlooked but you’ll find warmth characteristic of Tweed-era Fenders at a fraction of the cost. For UK tones, the Normal channel of an AC30 works beautifully, but if you’re looking for something with more gain the Orange Rockerverb range should do nicely.

For heads, I have to say that the new Marshall Silver Jubilee reissue surprised me with the amount of lows it has on tap. The Mesa Tremoverb is another hugely underrated and darker-sounding amp, one higher-gain head that I wish I owned.

Come to the Dark Side

I’d like to echo the sentiments of our Sith Lord Vader, welcoming you to the more sinister side of tone. To be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with brighter sounds! If chime is your thing, chase your bliss! Me, I’ll be over on the other side of the stage in my warm, woolen cocoon.

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American Whoa: The American Pro Jazzmaster’s Peculiar Pickups

An American Pro Jazzmaster came into my life recently and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’m loving the light weight and solid feel of the guitar, and for a guy that’s not such a huge fan of maple fretboards I’m delighted to have one close at hand. Those same concerns I had in my December review are still present, mainly the selector switch placement and the proximity of the E strings to the edges of the fretboard. I’ll be posting more of my long-term impressions down the road, but do go back and read that review if you’d like the full scoop.

After the last week of ownership, I have to admit that I’m not entirely thrilled with the sound of the guitar. The pickups leave me a bit cold, lacking some of depth of sound and dynamic range of other Jazzmaster pickups. They exhibit an almost Strat-like quality which I initially attributed to the new design, or perhaps the use of 500K pots and a treble bleed network, both of which can have an effect on the sound.

It wasn’t until I popped off the covers that I discovered the shocking reason for my dissatisfaction: these are not Jazzmaster pickups at all – they’re Strat-like coils in oversized bobbins.

As we’ve described previously, traditional Jazzmaster pickups have wide, flat, relatively hot coils wound right to the edges of the bobbin, which is why they possess such a wide range of bright highs, present low-mids, and round bass. Because of their size, Jazzmaster pickups sense a wider aperture of the string’s vibrational length than most, producing the dynamic, three-dimensional sound that makes Jazzmasters so damn sonically spectacular as well as unusually versatile.

Fender sells the sound of the newly-designed V-Mod pickups as “hot, vintage-inspired tone with plenty of punch and definition.” Vintage-inspired or not, the pickups found in the AM-PRO are a far cry from the sound and construction of traditional Jazzmaster pickups, which is kind of the reason folks buy a Jazzmaster in the first place. Wound tall and dense, the V-Mod pickups have much more in common with overwound Strat pickups or even P90s, minus the bar magnets and adjustable poles.

While I won’t go so far as to say they’re bad-sounding pickups I do feel vindicated in suspecting that I wasn’t getting the full experience. The sound is, to my ears, more narrow in scope and toward the sterile side comparatively; lows are there but rigid, and while highs aren’t biting, they also aren’t as sparkly. Again, they’re not bad, just not Jazzmasters.

Puzzlingly, this new pickup design isn’t new at all; these pickups are eerily similar if not virtually identical to those found on Japanese Jazzmasters since the mid-1980s. This Strat-in-a-Jazzmaster-cover construction is a hallmark of MIJ/CIJ guitars, generally considered the weak link of those models. In fact, swapping out for better pickups is always my first suggestion to players looking for more out of their import Jazzmaster. Check out this comparison shot of a Japanese pickup (left) next to a Lollar: (right)

I took this photo years ago, and the brand-new V-Mod pickups look just like the MIJ

It’s perplexing, then, that Fender would double down on such a design for their new, more modern take on the guitar. Along with the omission of the Rhythm Circuit, I suspect that this was an attempt to broaden the appeal of the instrument, to homogenize the new line so that none of the models stray far from each other. From that corporate perspective it almost makes sense to stuff a Strat pickup into a Jazzmaster, but in doing so they’ve undermined one of the most fundamental and desirable aspects of the guitar: the sound.

Look, I’m a reasonable if not opinionated guy, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks who like these pickups. Who am I to dissuade them! One of my Instagram followers was just telling me how much he loves his MIJ pickups, and I wouldn’t dream of shaming him for enjoying his guitar. I may personally find them lacking and if asked I’ll quickly suggest a replacement of superior quality. Otherwise, my motto is “Chase your bliss.”

But for those looking to spend their hard-earned money chasing Jazzmaster tones in an affordable and updated package, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. Bluntly, this guitar won’t sound like a proper Jazzmaster without modification, and at $1500, having to spend more for the ‘correct’ tone may be a mark against the American Pro series to some. To others like myself, for whom changing pickups is as routine as brushing teeth, same as it ever was.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual player to decide whether or not this is a dealbreaker. And really, I’m not so sure it should be, the guitar’s great fun all around. However, I also won’t pretend I’m not disappointed; perhaps it wouldn’t be so if the specs were a little more forthcoming, letting potential buyers know what they’re getting. Fender’s been vague on this issue in the past – just look at the “special design hot single coil Jazzmaster pickups” of the Classic Player line which are actually P90s through and through.

To simply call them “Jazzmaster pickups” is misleading, when in reality they are not. Beneath those big, white covers isn’t just a combination, it’s a compromise; the guitar sounds good enough, yet lacks the signature tone and feel you’d expect from such an instrument. And while there’s nothing wrong with a good Stratocaster pickup, like many other “crossovers” that aim to straddle two very different traditions, I can’t help but feel the end result is only half as effective as either.

As for me, I’ll be swapping pickups on this one sooner than later.

MIJ on top, V-MOD on bottom.

REVIEW: Toothsome Tones from Yellowcake’s Furry Burrito

I’m a big fan of cake, let it be known far and wide. All kinds of cake, really: carrot cake, coffee cake, Devil’s Food, German Chocolate, the band Cake, ice cream cake, and especially Red Velvet, which seems to get a lot of hate and is often erroneously thought of as “just chocolate cake that is red.” This is a guitar blog, but I’m tempted to spend the rest of this article explaining exactly why that’s so, so wrong. It’s offensive, really.

For whatever reason, I’ve been in a yellow cake phase for well over a year. I mean, with so many flavors out there, why settle for boring old yellow? There’s just something about that buttery-sweet taste that’s arrested my tastebuds, I really can’t explain it. Except now that I think of it, this craving coincides with the arrival of one of the coolest pedals I’ve ever owned, one which has cemented its place in every incarnation of my guitar and bass rigs since: The Yellowcake Furry Burrito.

Maybe there’s a connection.

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All-Purpose Fuzz

The Yellowcake Furry Burrito is a fuzz pedal, but not just––the fuzz circuit cascades into an on-board overdrive, reminiscent of the old practice of “stacking” gain stages for maximum saturation, only here it’s in a single unit. In this way the Furry Burrito offers uniquely full-bodied sounds, mating a buttercream Muff-like fuzz and the midrange and clarity of a good overdrive. Even at its most boisterous settings, this pedal never loses definition and potency.

Four knobs adorn the pedal’s pastel enclosure: Gain, Drive, Filter, and Level. Gain and Drive control the amount of fuzz and drive, respectively. Taking turns with each knob shows off the pedal’s unique versatility: favoring the Drive knob gives way to the sweeter side of the Burrito, but Gain is where the decadent fuzz circuit resides. Mixing the two offers a near-endless variety of tones that blur the lines between the two famous effects.

The control labeled “Filter” is your basic variable low-pass which governs the amount of treble frequencies present. However, even at its most extreme settings the pedal retains its personality, never sounding too crystalline or mushy. If you prefer your amps dark like me, you’ll find that the Filter knob can act as a sort of fixer where other fuzz pedals may become too gummy. 

The FAT switch, as you might have guessed, is a two-position selector that offers a boost to the bottom. The ‘down’ position is the pedal’s vanilla setting, and while it’s certainly thinned out compared with the alternative choice, it is by no means washed out or icy. Engaging the switch caramelizes the low end into monstrous bass sounds and warm leads. This pedal loves low frequencies.

The real surprise here is the LED indicator, which doubles as a voltage trim pot. This lets you starve the circuit, introducing all of the sputtery, ripping goodness we all so enjoy in a good fuzz. This, combined with the two flavors of grit, makes the pedal singularly versatile.

Suggested Recipes

At its most polite settings this pedal won’t get you to clean boost territory. What you’re far more likely to find here is a robust drive with some RAT-like edge. What it lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in bold sounds as rendered here in my very first encounter with the pedal some sixty-six weeks prior to this post:

These Pinkerton-esque sounds were produced with Drive and Gain both set right around the mid-point into my Fender Excelsior Pro. With my old Jazzmaster, I was surprised by the nearly authentic “The Good Life” sounds that were coming out of it. You know me, all of my gear-tasting begins and ends with Weezer tunes.

The Furry Burrito positively blooms where more chaotic sounds are concerned. Rolling up the Gain and Drive knobs, the pedal becomes a sumptuous wall of thick fuzz, especially with the FAT switch in the ‘up’ position. The ample, peanut butter thick low end fluffs the signal without over overstepping the bounds of good taste (unless you wanted it to). Think Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr.

It was this side of the Furry Burrito’s flavor profile that inspired my cover of “Silent Night,” which I recorded early in December of 2016. I ran the Yellowcake into a Strymon Bluesky set for a large hall verb, then ran the stereo signal to my ’65 Fender Bassman piggyback on one side and my ’79 Marshall JMP and mock 8×10” (4×12”) cabinet on the other. When the dirt kicks in at 57 seconds, what you’re hearing is the Yellowcake pedal, those amps, and my old Jazzmaster. I’m really proud of that sound. Have a listen:


Perfect Pairing

It’s also worth mentioning that the Furry Burrito pairs beautifully with other pedals.  When introduced in front of my old standard, the Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive, the cascading effect of the creamy fuzz slamming into the FUCK, which added some sweetness and depth while the Furry Burrito happily drenched it in a gooey  ganache of fuzz. When used after my Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, I ended up with an even bigger, wider array of squishier tones. The pairing of the Factory and the Burrito also proved useful for added chaos at the very end of “Silent Night.” You can hear them together at the 1:46 mark, when I go behind the bridge for for the big finish.

This pedal is one of the rare few that’s as at-home on bass as with a guitar, especially with the voltage trimmer rolled back a bit. It also totally nails some of my favorite bass fuzz tones, including Beastie Boys‘ “Sabotage.”

Cooling Rack

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The Furry Burrito fits in perfectly with Kali’s color-coordinated rig

Having owned this pedal for so long, I should be able to tell you all about its strengths and its weaknesses, but it’s shockingly difficult to come up with criticism.

Yesterday, I showed the pedal off to my good friend Kali Kazoo, one of LA’s most unique and colorful songwriters. Touring the pedal’s various features and settings with Kali, I realized that the LED trimmer, while novel, is easily overlooked. There’s no visual “TURN ME” cue as you’d might expect, no overt declaration of its function. Being a clear, back-lit knob, I also wish for a contrasting indicator so settings are easier to recall. As it stands, my favorite setting for the trimmer is “turned to one side and then back a little bit.

Surely it’s not an exact measurement, but I often adjust according to taste anyway. As far as complaints go, that’s Angel’s Food. Cake jokes.

Have Your Yellowcake and Eat It Too

At $165 street, this pedal is a steal. If you’re on the market for a good, versatile fuzz that can do a lot more than just big, meaty sounds and keeps its composure, definitely keep this pedal in mind. If you find other popular fuzzes too capricious, the Furry Burrito would be an excellent option for you as well. Me, I can’t even think of leaving this pedal off of my board.  You know, I’m glad I don’t have to.

My board from the most recent LeoLeo tour.

My board from the most recent LeoLeo tour.

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