Tag Archives: mikeandmikesguitarbar

Couch Guitar Straps: Vegan and Sweatshop-Free in the USA

IMG_4087By Michael James Adams

This year, my birthday was a tough one; the more my wife and family asked what gifts I wanted, the less I could even think about answering that question. Truth is, I didn’t really want or need anything, at least as far as I could tell. That is, until my wife reminded me of something I’d mentioned ages ago: I was getting tired of my lame black straps, and had been obsessed with Couch Guitar Straps for years. Bingo.

Like many of my friends, my first exposure to Couch Straps – at least that I can recall – was from Nels Cline, guitar wizard and purveyor of atonal noise/free jazz extraordinaire. I picked up a promo copy of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky back in 2007 and was blown away by both his ferocity and tact, so you can imagine how little time passed before I started analyzing his back catalogue, his gear, his technique, tone and style. And in every photo I saw, there was that same jet-black strap with the offset white stripe running its entire length, not simply holding up his guitar but elevating it, enhancing it.

I’m in an italics kind of mood. Can you tell?

Now, that man is the epitome of cool in my book, so I had to find out who made that strap. It’s been so long that I don’t remember exactly how I found them, but eventually I did, and so I spent three days just soaking in all of the colors, materials and options, of which there are many. For whatever reason, though, I never ended up making an order, likely because of my legendary gear distraction, where I get hooked on something and then forget about it once another great piece of kit comes along. But fast-forward a handful of years and here I am, all Couched up.

This Los Angeles-based company has been around since 1999, and prides itself on making quality, road-tested straps that are sure to hold up to the rigors of rock n’ roll life and looking sharp while doing so. Their straps are made from finish-friendly vinyl and vintage, deadstock and recycled materials. Ever been inside a Mercedes from the 1980s or a ’70s Volkswagen and thought, “I want this seat near my guitar, like, all the time.” Well, guess what! Couch does that.

Also a point of interest is that Couch Straps are vegan and sweatshop-free, which is easy on the soul and conscience of the would-be customer. And they make a good point about their business philosphy, too:

Look, most guitar straps are either really bad or really overpriced. On top of that, hardly anyone is making them vegan and sweatshop free in The United States. Why can’t someone else just make a guitar strap that isn’t either completely generic like the music store ones or looks pretty good but cheaply made and overpriced like the fashion strap companies? …[We’re] not into purchasing the actual hides of leather and then stamping the tabs out of asymmetric sides of beef before sewing them on our straps. The buying and selling of animal skin carcasses was a little too weird for us, thanks.

Well, I’m sold!

My wife and I spent nearly an hour pulling out my guitars that desperately needed cool straps and discussing our favorite color combinations. The company’s Racer X straps alone have three pages of color options on their website, so for us this was no easy choice. After much deliberation, screaming, hopelessly deadlocked voting and tearful apologies, we finally decided that my Sonic Blue ’07 Fender Thin Skin Jazzmaster (which I affectionately call “Artoo”) would be best served by a white Racer X strap with an orange stripe, in keeping with the Rebel Alliance color motif. It was also decided that my 2011 Fastback ’52 Telemaster needed a cool strap of its own, and I couldn’t think of anything better than the Vintage Cadillac Sunburst Deadstock Luggage strap. And, because I just stuff bills in my left front pocket, my wife bought me the company’s Jet Age Slimline Wallet!

When the straps finally came – and quickly, I might add! – I didn’t even have to open the package to know that I was in for a treat. It’s not often that companies will put in the time to make customers feel like they’re really appreciated, but imagine the feeling of unbridled giddiness I had upon pulling this one out of my mailbox:IMG_4196

Even my invoice had this personal touch, with a sort of tree/man hybrid flailing his arms/branches praising the Jet Age wallet with glee. I was thrilled, and the straps were cool, too. The end.

NO! Not the end. The straps? Amazing, actually.

IMG_4070You might be able to tell from the pictures, but I can’t make it clear enough that the materials and workmanship are both top notch on these straps. Made from soft automotive grade vinyl, there are no harsh edges or stiffness, no skipped stitches, not even an unsightly hanging thread to be found. The straps, if you didn’t know, measure at about 67″ when fully extended, whereas most straps are around the 60″ mark. This means there’s a lot of room for adjustment when you first don your new strap, and maybe a bit more than you’d expect.

The white vinyl on my Racer X strap was pure and unmarred by shipping, and the contrasting orange stripe was expertly applied. The strap ends look sturdy as hell, with plenty of secure stitching throughout and three rivets on the rear tab for extra reinforcement. Everything about these straps screams quality.

The Racer X strap really excels at adding to, not taking away from the already hip looks my my instrument. While the Couch strap certainly does stand out, it’s neither gaudy nor overly flashy. Ah yes, the Couch Strap knows its place, never overtaking the stately presence of a well-chosen instrument.

To be sure, I’m absolutely in love with the Racer X strap, but what really surprised me was how ‘in love’ I fell with the Vintage Cadillac Sunburst Deadstock strap, made from actual Cadillac Hardtop vinyl. When we ordered it, I was positive it would look great, but not necessarily any different from the other black straps I already have. I was wrong; as soon as it was out of the bag the waxy shine of the vinyl caught my eye, and the vibrant orange and yellow-orange stitching really looked great even in the light of our crappy apartment. And no matter which of my guitars I paired it with, it just fit. At first I thought that maybe I could get away with it being a community strap for all of my axes, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be ordering more straps from Couch in the future. This one is staying on the Telemaster.

IMG_4097Often when I wear a leather or vinyl strap from other makers, I expect that the strap will have a rough material on its underside and that the weight of the guitar will pull whatever shirt I’m wearing into an uncomfortable bunch on my shoulder. Not so with Couch, ladies and gents. It’s clear to me that a lot of thought went into designing these straps, and I can honestly tell you that they are the most comfortable 2″ straps I’ve ever used. Ever had a strap “bite” your neck, rubbing it raw during a show? That’s not going to happen here, folks. That vinyl is soft and smooth.

It seems to me that Couch’s offerings are tailor-made for the working musician, and they’ve taken into account all of the things that non-musical designers might miss. In fact, the thing that really gets me about Couch is that they’re not only made for musicians, but by musicians. Other Mike’s Band Goldie Wilson has shared the stage with 60’s power-pop band The New Fidelity, which is led by Daniel Perkins, founder of Couch Guitar Straps. Of course, The New Fidelity rocks Couch straps and the makers have been using the same couch straps since 1999.

As for the Jet Age Slimline Wallet, I can vouch for its 1960s TWA cool and ability to organize even the messiest of pockets. Made from vintage blue vinyl with orange and white racing stripes, this wallet has a My bills are cozy, all tucked in together while my cards, gym badge and other miscellany are held tight in the Jet Age’s amply-sized pockets. Like the straps, the wallet is soft and well-made, and all of the stitching is top-notch. The interior pocket is lined in fabric inked with the Couch logo, and though the website warns that the ink may rub off on bills for a short time after initial use, I haven’t noticed anything like that. IMG_3994

The wallet fits great in my pocket, and though I can’t speak for every pair of jeans on the planet, I’d imagine that the size – maybe 20% or so larger than a wad of folded cash – would slide into most pockets with ease.

After a week of normal use, going in an out of pockets and being pulled apart to insert all of the crazy amounts of money I make and consequently flash at all of the fanciest of clubs, the wallet is starting to break in a bit. The edges are loosening up and becoming more flexible, not that the material was stiff to begin with. I’ve already managed to partially rip the double stitch on the left side of the orange stripe, but I doubt that has anything to do with the quality of this piece. I tend to be hard on things like this, and I’ll admit that until I had this I wasn’t a ‘wallet guy’ and haven’t used one for quite some time. I usually keep them in a coat or bag and not on my person, so this one is getting a lot of use. All of the stitches that are holding the thing together are intact and tight. Another positive note: this wallet is getting all kinds of stares and compliments each time I pull it out to pay for something. ALL KINDS.

While the products of this small company are truly great in their own right, I would point out that the photos on the website aren’t as helpful as they could be when it comes to selecting a complementary color scheme for your instrument. While the photos are individually fine, the colors vary a bit from shot to shot, making it difficult to nail down exactly what you’re getting. While this is a minor quibble, I could see how that might be a problem for some customers.

IMG_4101The only other thing I could think of that might be a problem for some would be how long the straps are in relation to the adjustment buckle. Because I’m used to shorter, more standard-length straps, it took a short while to grow accustomed to the buckle sitting in the low shoulder area of my back instead of between my side and instrument. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, and something that most players may not even notice. (OCD is a hell of a drug!) The buckle is virtually undetectable as it is, and after a few sessions with it I no longer feel the difference. I thought it worth mentioning this because I tend to be way too positive about things I like and therefore gloss over the negative aspects of things, however slight. I’m trying to be objective! So there. Fine. I’m sorry, Couch. *folds arms*

As I’m sure you might have guessed, I’m extremely happy with my Couch straps and wallet. I never dreamed that I’d have straps that feel comfy AND look cool. Until now, those two attributes seemed mutually exclusive! These days, guitar shops seem overrun by faux-rock designs peppered with checkerboards, skulls and vaguely indie branding that borders on twee at best. With Couch, the designs are solid, timeless, and sometimes a little bit cheeky. With Couch, $35 gets you a hell of a lot of strap.

Go buy some now, please. And while you’re at it, you forgot my birthday. Buy me more! You might even see Couch Guitar Straps at the Guitar Bar in the coming months…

-Michael James Adams

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A Very Mike & Mike Christmas

Happy holidays, all! We think you’re just tops. Just tops!

_MG_7395 - Version 3 _MG_7348 _MG_7408 _MG_7425A very special thanks to Mandy McGee Photography and Jerry Nebel, who is quite possibly the greatest Santa Claus ever. Seriously. I’d be willing to bet that the REAL Santa’s got nothing on Jerry.

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Teaser!

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We’ve been away from the blog for a couple of weeks, and I promise we have the best excuse ever! We’ve been working hard on our first-ever product, and the time has come to let the cat out of the bag. Here’s a teaser photo of our work with full product details to follow this weekend!

Thanks to all of our faithful friends and customers who have supported us since we opened, and a very special thanks to those of you who allowed us to borrow your instruments! This couldn’t have happened without all of you!

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Youtube’s 331Erock is Totally Worth Your Time. (SPOILER ALERT: Doctor Who, BTTF Content)

This is probably not news to anyone, but I HAD to share the work of this musician once I found out about him.

That’s right: a metal medley of the music of Back To The Future including the theme and Johnny B. Goode. While I enjoy metal music, I don’t always actively seek out instrumental varieties. Still, once I heard his version of the BTTF theme, I knew I had to see what else this guy can do. That’s not even the best part, though! He also does an absolutely spine-tingling version of the Doctor Who theme:

Do yourself a favor and check out his other videos here.

Yeah, he’s got chops. Definitely some chops.

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Fret Reflections (Double Meanings = Double points!)

Pre-polish

See that? That’s gross. It looks bad and it can rob your tone. Think about it: frets are the only thing other than your hands that strings touch during play. Of course you don’t want your shiny new strings grinding up on corrosion and rust! That’s nasty!

This isn’t the worst build-up I’ve ever seen, but I should be embarrassed; this was the condition of the frets on my 1973 Fender Precision Bass earlier today. which I set about cleaning up. How could I–a handsome, witty and gainfully-employed guitar technician–let it get that far? Well, Dear Reader, I’ll tell you.

Over the last year, I found myself playing more bass than ever: I was holding down the low end in a female-fronted dance rock outfit, tracking bass for my then-main gig, picking up the occasional bass part in an Alt-Country band when the bass player would switch to Dobro, and I was starting to sit in with a few friends that were performing live and tracking an album. I was pretty busy for a guy that doesn’t call himself a bassist!

During that time, it became clear to me that my bass was due for a fret dressing. Buzzing on my most-used frets became a constant problem, and fretting my low E on the 8th fret nearly choked off the note. I’d used the bass quite a lot, so I wasn’t all that surprised. Trouble was, my friends doing the album tracking needed me in the studio over the weekend, but they didn’t let me know until Tuesday. I wasn’t about to go to a studio with an instrument that frets out, so later in the week I found time to squeeze in a quick fret job.

And I mean quick; if this were a customer’s instrument, I would have taken the time to perfectly crown and polish each fret to a mirror shine, but because I was in a rush I decided I could live with just kissing the tops of the frets and leaving them rough with just a spit-shine for looks. (Not literally) I planned on getting around to finishing, but as life sometimes goes I never found the time. At this point it’s been months since I picked up my bass, so when I opened its case this morning and found the frets in this condition my OCD kicked in immediately. Today was the day.

Much better.

That’s what it should look like: smoothed-out and round with a mirror shine. Wonderful, right? After I re-rounded few frets, I used Micro-Mesh Soft Touch Finishing Pads, available at Stew-Mac.com. Easier to use than the usual sandpaper steps and cleaner than steel wool, these pads have become a daily staple in my guitar repair diet. I use them on everything from finishes to frets, and they’re great for polishing a freshly-cut bone nut or blending drop fills on finishes. Hate the way your hand sticks to a nitro-finished neck? They’re great for that, too!

I strung the bass back up with the old set (I like ’em worn-in) after I cleaned the strings with some denatured alcohol. Immediately my bass felt better, and notes sounded cleaner with reduced string noise. This made for a more lively playing experience, and I didn’t feel like I had to wash my hands after playing. There’s nothing like smooth, shiny frets. My bass is happy.

This makes an even bigger difference on guitar, where whole note bends and plain strings are the norm. Next time you change strings, take a moment to polish your frets. You’ll be able to bend and gliss to your heart’s content without getting caught up on corrosion and you may even find that your strings last longer.

Caution: If you’re going to use steel wool, make sure to mask off your pickups. Steel wool fibers can easily work their way into your pickups, shorting them out and completely ruining your day.

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Chords and Conviction

A few months back, my good friend Chae was foaming at the mouth about the White Stripes’ recent “One Note Concert” where the band played (literally) one chord in every Province of Canada. I’ll admit that at first hearing of this, I scoffed; I wondered at the silliness of having an entire sound system set up, mics in place and sound check dialed in. The drums, the amps, the pedal board and backup instruments all ready to go. I was astonished. “For one note? Wow.”

The more I thought about it, the more I was confronted by increasingly compelling questions such as: “If I could only play one chord what would it be?” and “What combination of notes would convey what I feel, what I’m trying to say?” Even more damning was the last question to come to mind: “Could I play that chord with conviction?”

I paced back and forth, my internal landscape awash with musical existentialism. I was confronted by pages of guitarists that are instantly recognizable. Musicians that have a tone, a flair, a particular way they use the tool that causes our ears to perk up and our lips to curl.

Imagine a lineup of your favorite guitarists, all playing the same chord. Imagine walking down the line with your eyes closed. Can you tell who you’re hearing?  No matter who’s in that lineup–EVH, Dimebag Darrell, John Mayer, Brad Paisley, Brian Setzer, Eric Clapton, Brendon Small, The Edge, Robert Cray, Nels Cline, Buddy Holly–the answer is always yes. But why? Is it simply by virtue of using different equipment, or is it something less easily quantifiable? I thought of some of my favorites, about their tone and note choices, but more importantly their style:

Muddy Waters: Open-tuned and down-home dirty, Muddy wasn’t afraid to let his instinct lead him in new directions. Listening to old solo recordings, you can hear that his slide technique wasn’t always precise nor was his guitar always in tune, but he was always emotional and cut right to the quick of the listener. That man said a lot even when he wasn’t singing.

Bruce Springsteen: When he hits an E major, you know it’s him. He picks right next to the bridge saddles on his battered old Esquire and you can hear it. His tone is paradoxically warm and articulate for such a style, but it’s his sound; we know it when we hear it.

Malcolm Young: The rhythmic foundation of AC/DC, Malcom has a thick and percussive sound, with copious amounts of mids and highs that keeps the music driving. With his single-pickup Gretsch into walls of amps and extra-heavy strings, you could almost swear you’re hearing his guitar’s wood alone. Precise, on-beat and greasy, even Angus confesses that he can’t do what Malcolm does.

Nels Cline: Unbridled but showing an immense amount of chess-like forethought, Nels alternately whispers and shouts, with smooth, dark legato passages followed by an explosive wall of noise that not only enhances the already great songs of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but makes his solo work so damned impressive. When Nels takes a solo, it’s obvious; from fleet-fingered runs to caffeine-fueled glissando, when Nels goes off, it’s both transcendent and cathartic.

I even thought of David Gilmour, whose lead tone is an oft-discussed mystery. Still, his work with Pink Floyd refined his lead and rhythm work, and when you hear one note you know exactly who’s playing behind that Leslie swirl and delay. There are few guitarists that can entrance me the way DG can.

Any time I hear one of my favorite players, I know who it is. I’m a huge SRV fan, and even if you don’t like his music you can’t deny that there are hallmarks of his playing that make him instantly recognizable. Is it the ’59 Stratocaster, the Tube Screamer, his choice of amps or tuning to Eb? Maybe it’s his huge string gauges or the fact that he often held his pick backwards. Or maybe–just maybe–it has WAY more to do with how he played rather than what he played. There are photos of Stevie playing a Les Paul, and I’ll bet he still sounded like SRV. And it works in the opposite way, too; when we hear someone copping that Stevie tone, we still know it isn’t Stevie!

I went on and on like this, and after a short time I was reminded of something I read from an interview with Randall Smith of Mesa Engineering. “[His QC guy] only knows one chord and one note, but he plays them with more conviction than anyone I know.” That stuck with me, and made me think even harder about the relationship between chords and conviction.

 

When I was just learning guitar, I had a really tough time with chord changes. I’m fortunate now that I’m able to play well enough to receive compliments on my tone and style after shows and it means a lot to me. What always strikes me as funny is when someone tells me I’m “gifted.” I’m flattered and I accept it wholeheartedly, never invalidating that most humbling of compliments with a negative, “Oh, I suck” kind of response. The truth of the matter is that while music is indeed a gift, I had to work incredibly hard for it.

A confession: It took me three whole years to be able to change chords adequately. No kidding. My hands just would not do it. My teachers we patient, but always thought that I wasn’t doing my homework. Sometimes they were right, but in all seriousness, I just couldn’t maneuver around the ‘board. So, while I was learning all of those difficult chord changes, I’d take breaks and just play one chord at a time.

When it comes to exercising or having to do more mundane or even creative tasks, I like a certain level of distraction to be built-in. That has more to do with my “wiring” and myriad neuroses than it does with preferences, but all things being equal I like noise. It keeps me focused while allowing another part of my mind to wander and entertain its flights of fancy. As a young guitarist, I’d watch TV while performing my scales. So, there I’d be, watching Knight Rider or Star Trek: The Next Generation while strumming one note or chord throughout the entire episode.

After a short time, I noticed that, depending on how I strummed, I could get different sounds out of my acoustic guitar. Notes seemed more mellow towards the neck. If I picked right next to the bridge, the tone was thinner and more biting. I tried picking at the 12th fret and was greeted by harp-like bell overtones! I was shocked!

After that, experimenting with picking positions became a standard exercise in my practice routine. Whether I’m practicing alone or with a band one thing I’ll always do is pick a few chords in our progressions and really work on them. It could mean picking intensely near the bridge or right next to the fretting hand; other times I’ll bring in my favorite trick, holding a chord and letting one string open just to see what sounds great. Others, especially when using my ES-355 or Jazzmaster, I’ll hold the chord and pick behind the bridge for extra flavor. Because of this, there are days when, if you ask me how I’m doing, I can’t tell you but I can play it for you.

The point I’m trying to make is that the possibilities are endless, which is one of my favorite things about the electric guitar. I feel that even though you can master scales and modes and memorize every chord inversion there is, you can never truly master the instrument. There’s so much one can do with that instrument, either on its own or by augmenting your tone with a pedal or unorthodox amping technique, and there’s no measure by which we know we’re finished. It’s beautiful and endlessly enthralling. One of my many mottos: “Mistakes are never mistakes.” Failure is the great teacher, is she not?

Next time you practice, take some time to hear your playing for what it is. When’s the last time you really listened to yourself anyway? How about making a basic recording of yourself playing one chord over and over. Try playing it different each time and see if you can hear the difference. Think about phrasing, timing and all of that of course, but really listen to one chord.

Discover how changing the pick position- how you hold it or where you strum- can have myriad tonal consequences. Play that chord hard, then strum softly. Really think about your individual tone and how you’d like to sound. Do they match? Try just playing an E major root-position chord with as much gusto and conviction as you can muster, then make sure it translates to G, A, Bmi… any of ‘em! I promise you won’t be sorry!

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Raise Your Action: A Plea

Finding the balance: low action = easy playability, higher action = great tone.

I know this is going to sound counter-cultural to those in tune with the guitar world at large, but here goes: raise your action.

*Deep breath*

I’m as much a fan of low, slinky action as the next guy, so far be it from me to make judgements and decrees like I’m the de facto leader of the free musical world. It’s just a friendly suggestion, one that I’ll detail below before anyone can throw wah pedals at my head.

Depending on your playing style, low action could be the order of the day. For example, playing fast licks in a metal band is usually well-served by having the lowest action possible on your axe. Most of us like our guitars to play like ‘butter’, as easy as it possibly can be so nothing gets in the way of our fingers. I’m that way, too.

Many of us look for low action as the sign of a good set up, but we so easily forget that strings need room to vibrate in order to make sound. The strings on our guitars vibrate much more wildly than we can see with the naked eye. Because of this, raising your action even slightly will allow notes to ring out with more body and fullness, and you might also find that sustain has increased. The benefits don’t stop there!

In the case of acoustic instruments, the bigger payoff might also be the increase in volume that comes from higher action. If you follow this blog (and I hope that you do) you’ll know that I was recently cast in a theatrical production of a show called This Land, a play not so much about the great Woody Guthrie as much as it is about what he saw and wrote about. In my humble and slightly biased opinion, it’s a beautiful show, and one in which I’m extremely proud to play a part.

The show is performed entirely acoustically, meaning there are no mics around to reinforce the sound we’re making on stage. This was initially vexing for me as my poor Gibson J-45, once crushed during an overseas flight, was having trouble keeping up. Since the accident, the guitar didn’t sound as good as it used to, with spongy response and terrible intonation. And, because the guitar suffered cracks and loose braces, the top had bowled up, making it nearly impossible to play comfortably unless the saddle was bottomed-out. Without that downward pressure on the saddle, the guitar sounded anemic and quiet.

During the first week of rehearsals, Music Director Edd Key asked me to take a solo in the song “This Land”. I played my heart out, but no one heard it over the banjo and other guitars playing along. This bummed me out to no end, and so I finally found the reason I’d been looking for to perform a neck reset on the guitar. I had been putting off the procedure for some time, but this was the only way to achieve playable action whilst retaining a tall saddle, which is key for projection and good tone.

Even though I’ve done this many times, there was still an “Oh, shit!” moment waiting for me once I had the neck off of my guitar.

Weeks later, when the neck reset was complete, I cut a new bone saddle for the guitar but made certain to keep it as high as I could without making the guitar unplayable. Even before I had chosen a final saddle height, strumming an open E chord yielded a huge increase in projection and dynamics, with all of the midrange fullness I had been missing.

I experimented for days looking for the perfect string height, taking the guitar home between performances to shave down the saddle, and once grafting on a tiny sliver of bone to the bottom of the saddle when I accidentally went a little too far. Now, where my guitar once was splashy and lacking detail, it’s loud and authoritative, with note definition and that low-mids thump I associate with great Gibson acoustic guitars. My guitar sounds livelier, more present, and now I’m happy to report that I have the opposite problem of perhaps having too much volume. I’m only using the guitar on three songs in the show now because I’m afraid of overpowering vocals or other instruments!

I’ve settled on an action that’s higher, but not too high. My low E is around .110″ above the 12th fret, and the high E is just a bit lower at .090″. This is just a bit higher than recommended by Gibson’s factory specs, and a huge difference from the .065″/.050″ E-e split I had going on before. When I was plugging in most of the time, I didn’t really notice the acoustic tone I was getting, so that worked out fine for me. I don’t mind a touch of buzz and I’m hard on the guitar, so I thought nothing of it.

The increase in action did give me some trouble initially with regards to playability. It took some time for my hands to get used to this stiffer action, but after a week of rehearsals (this is a 4-5 hour affair each night) I thought nothing of it. I’m getting around just as easily as before, but now I’m actually being heard! And it’s had a wonderful impact on my electric skills as well, enabling me to be a bit quicker and more precise. That’s a tune we can all dance to!

I told you this story to illustrate some of the benefits of higher action on acoustic guitars, but the same truths apply to electrics as well. The action on my electric guitars is considerably lower than on my acoustics, but even a half-turn of the thumb wheel on a TOM bridge can have a huge impact on tone, feel and sustain. Ever feel like your guitar doesn’t have enough punch in the lower register? Try raising your action by .010″ and see if it doesn’t help. Also, dialing in a bit of relief in the neck can help there as well.

Of course, string height also alters your setup, and if you stick with it you may want to adjust intonation and pickup height to taste. For now, give it a shot as-is, and see what you think. For me, this little change makes a huge difference. Once the show’s over I’ll likely take the action back down a tad, but for now the balance of playability and projection is top-notch for my needs, and I’m having a lot more fun with the guitar than I used to.

Maybe raising your action isn’t for you, but try to think outside of the low action=good guitar bias we all live with. You may find that tone you’ve always heard in your head waiting for you on the other side!

-Michael James Adams

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Fastback’s T-Master: The Hot-Rodded Masterpiece You’ve Always Wanted

Last month we peeked under the hood of Fastback’s Cabo model, a guitar that impressed us with its great out-of-the-gate tone and workhorse aesthetics. This time Fastback is back with its T-Master model for us to work over, and I’m excited. With so many D.I.Y “custom shops” cropping up all over the place, it’s good to know that these instruments are being made right in my own back yard, by players and for players. Come with me as I get taken for a ride…

The T-Master

Damn.

A blend of two perennial favorites, the T-Master is Fastback’s guitar that never was. Borrowing the electronics and hardware complement of a Telecaster, the T-Master superimposes those familiar traits onto a vintage-correct offset Jazzmaster body. I’m a huge fan of both of the aforementioned guitars, and I have to say that the combination absolutely stunned me. The moment I saw the vintage blonde ’52 model I knew I wanted one, and just looking at it I could tell that the guitar sounded great. Boy, was I right!

Specs on this model are identical to the other models, save for the beautifully-grained swamp ash body (Alder on opaque finishes), Joe Barden bridge and compensated saddles, and Lollar Special T pickups. The guitar boasts the familiar 25.5″ scale length and bolt-on 21 fret neck of your typical California dream, and they now include G&G Cases. The body looks large at first, but believe you me it’s one of the most balanced instruments I’ve ever played. Weight ratios are such that the guitar hangs on a strap without shifting this way or that, and the guitar is in the easy-on-the-back 7-8lb range.

When I reviewed Fastback’s Cabo guitar, I was surprised by just how loud it was when played acoustically. The T-Master’s even louder, no joke. To illustrate just how great this “feature” is, let me tell you a little story: My wife was in the kitchen* while I was playing the T-Master in our living room. That week I was focusing on riffs from The Darkness, as this was right around the time they came through Seattle on their reunion tour. Now, from the other room, I heard my wife exclaim, “I believe in a thing called loooooooove!”

Think about this for a moment: I was in the living room, jamming away unplugged. My wife was a room away in the kitchen. The kitchen. When’s the last time someone in a whole other room could hear what you were playing on your solid body electric guitar? Usually, if you’re any distance away from the guitar–be it a Tele or a Paul–all you hear is the springy “plink” of the strings, not fully defined notes. I’m not saying this guitar will compete with an acoustic, but it’s much, much louder than one would expect.

Joe Barden bridge and compensated saddles!

Impressed? I was. Imagine my further elation when, upon plugging into my Marshall I was greeted with some of the most strident tones I’ve heard from a bolt-on guitar. Equipped with Lollar Special T pickups, this guitar had the girth and mid-kick of higher-output pickups, but I found that the guitar wasn’t simply louder, but that its most sonorous frequencies were moved forward in the overall mix. Notes jumped up to greet me like a Labrador ready for walkies.

I will say that, even though I’m a huge fan of Jason Lollar’s pickups, I prefer the Vintage T’s to the Specials. The Specials are great pickups for sure, but just a tad darker than I expected, especially when playing a guitar that has any kind of Telecaster vibe. In its current configuration, the T-Master had more bite than humbuckers, but less than single coils with more traditional output, which might be a huge plus for other players. Even with the tone control maxed, I had to bump up the treble a number or two when I needed spanky, Paisley-approved twang. It’s also worth noting that while Lollar Pickups are an option on Fastbacks’ line, they also are winding their own pickups in-house, allowing them to tailor the tonality of each of their guitars. This is exciting news, so expect a review soon!

Even with that small complaint, this guitar really shined when I took solos. Played through the same amps mentioned in the previous portion of this article, as well as a bevy of dirt boxes, the T-Master retained its own character. Single note runs had equal amounts of bite and body, and full chords remained tight and true. Digging in with a pick revealed just how much this guitar loves to rock, and whether it was searing blues or all-out rock, the T-Master delivered. As a side note, this guitar loves to be fingerpicked. Quick country runs were no problem for this beast, but it also responded well to neck-position jazz tunes. Whether saturated in dripping gain or set for glassy cleans, the T-Master weathered it all.

Let there be no mistaking it: the T-Master is a brilliant guitar and I’m in love with it. Other than the pickup choice–which is honestly more a matter of personal preference than a strict denouncement of the manufacturer’s specs–I have little in the way of complaints. On this guitar’s see-thru finish more so than The Cabo’s basic black, it was perhaps more evident that there were some very minor fit-and-finish issues ranging from some slightly uneven polishing on the maple fretboard to the thin nitro finish sinking into the pores of the swamp ash body. The website doesn’t specify an “open pore” finish, so I assumed that this wasn’t intentional. Mark tells us that, because this guitar was one of the first they built, they learned a lot from that initial run. Current models have filled grain and glassier finishes, to which I can attest.

Still, these are very minor nitpicks, and neither did they really bother me nor prevent me from playing as great as I ever have on these guitars. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I experienced one of my most enjoyable practices in a long time employing this guitar. Not only did I feel like a total badass just strapping on the T-Master, but with a big, lively tone and the sheer ostentation of the guitar I was fielding questions and taking friends for test drives before the night was out. One thing’s for certain: Both of the guitars we tested carried with them that nigh-unquantifiable quality that turns a good guitar into a great one. That quality? Fun. These guitars are absolutely a blast to play.

I. Love. This.

Speaking of fun, did I mention the neck plate? Ho, ho! Dear reader, feast thine eyes on this! We all know that when you want to date a vintage bolt-on guitar you have to have done your research to decrypt the numbers stamped on the neck plate. Fastback makes certain you’ll never have this problem when dating your guitar, thanks to their “Pinup Girl” system. That’s right, each year of production gets its own specific pinup girl. Seeing that each time I picked up the guitar let me know I was in for a treat, I can tell you that.

At the end of the day, it’s always exciting to witness the progress of a fledgeling brand, and even more so if said brand is making phenomenal instruments. It’s worth noting that Fastback is still a relatively young company (they’ve only built 12 guitars to date) but given the truly impressive nature of their first batch, it’s a good bet that Fastback is in this race to win. 

Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a Fastback as soon as possible, preferably before they take off so you can brag about knowing them before they got big. Because they will, and then you won’t have the smug satisfaction of having known about them first. You hipster.

UPDATE 10/25/12

Yeah, I totally bought this one. After months of pining for it–and going through three other guitars without satisfaction–I couldn’t stand not having this guitar as part of my collection. I just played my first gig with it, and I have to say it’s living up to all of my expectations. Of course, I did change out those pickups!

*Note: My wife was in the kitchen circumstantially; this is not where she usually belongs. She does not have to ‘make me a sandwich’, nor do I tell her to ‘get back in [there]’. Mike and Mike’s Guitar Bar believes in gender equality, and as such, I sometimes cook dinner.
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This Land Part 2: Rehearsal/Opening

On September 6th, Strawberry Theater Workshop‘s production of This Land had its debut performance at the Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill, and it opened to standing ovations and uproarious applause. It was a momentous occasion, not only for the warm reception, but because it marked the fruition of a month’s hard work–and work we did.

From left: Rob Burgess, Kayla Walker, Sheila Daniels. These people are incredible.

The Show

The process of putting together a production like this is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s one thing to watch from the audience and take in a performance, but it’s quite another to be there as the show’s being created. At first, I had no idea what the final product was going to look as I was learning songs and working with the actors on vocal parts. Once Director Greg Carter started mixing live action with those songs, that’s when things got really interesting.

One-upsmanship at its finest. Sheila Daniels, Kat Stromberger and Bhama Roget perform “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done”.

I’ve struggled with describing this play to others, so I’ll do my best here: The play involves music, acting and puppetry–but Sesame Street it is not. These puppets are of the Bunraku tradition, seemingly carved out of single logs and possessing a charming yet grisled look that brings the puppets to life without the usual tropes we often associate with puppet shows. With these clever machines, the actors are able to create a theatrical experience that’s both tender and lively, and you’d swear the puppets are feeling every word spoken. Usually with this style of puppetry, the actors would be clad in black and hidden, but the decision to allow the audience to see the actors makes the experience more rich, more touching; it’s almost as if it’s easier to stomach the hard truths of life so long as the actors have a method of deflection, saying them through this human analogue. True to form, these puppets look like they’ve endured hardship after hardship, working long hours in coal mines or bumming around the country in train cars. They’re beautiful, and each one is an individual work of art.

“What is this, a stage for ANTS?!”

Being so involved in music, it would have been easy to miss a lot of what was going on around me. There are scenes where the puppets are dancing, washing down the bad taste of life with whiskey, attending funerals and going to sleep. The actors that control them–or more appropriately, the puppets inform the actors–are amazingly skilled at their craft, wringing more raw emotion out of these puppets than I ever dreamed. I’ve never been so moved!

If you come to the show, the first thing you’ll see is the sprawling, impressive stage setting. It’s the home of the whole show, and we’re using all of it. That’s something I really like about this show: the action is everywhere. There’s something to see no matter where you’re looking; we musicians are to your right, singing and laughing along while there are actors to your left, center stage and even on the wings of the seating area. I wish I could experience the show from that perspective, but alas, I have a pretty good seat already.

The Music

The rehearsal process was a great workout for me, both musically and vocally; it’s been some time since I’ve been so dedicated to purely acoustic music, and while I somewhat enjoy singing, it’s certainly not my main gig as far as making music goes. I’m usually much happier just being a guitarist and supporting a singer. However, when I was cast in This Land I knew I’d be doing some singing, and there was mention of a solo song or two being thrown my way. Thankfully, music director Edd Key helped me get up to par with plenty of warm-ups and tips during rehearsals. I’m really, really impressed with the results, and my voice has never been stronger or more controlled. I never knew I could sing like that!

Music director Edd Key and actor Rob Burgess during one of our music-focused rehearsals.

I don’t pretend to have the voice training one might expect from an actor cast in a musical, but then again, this isn’t your average musical. This Land is more akin to an old-school revue than your typical flashy, big-time musical theater production. We musicians are relegated to one part of the stage, but the action scenes happen all around us.  Of course, there’s acting and story interwoven with the music, with scenes going on while we’re performing the songs. The difference is that where other musicals would have material written specifically to advance the plot or describe what’s happening onstage, our source material is already there in the form of Woody’s brilliant works. Instead of revealing plot, the music that’s been chosen reveals mood and feeling, serving as a backdrop for what’s happening on stage. It’s kind of like scoring a film in that way.

Another challenge for me on the singing side of things was remembering lyrics. Like I said before, I’m not often the frontman, so I don’t spend a lot of time remembering words. In the play, I have 3 solo songs and numerous choral parts to memorize. This was all very intimidating, and Woody Guthrie having been so prolific wasn’t helping. For instance, while I love the song “Remember the Mountain Bed”, memorizing that one wasn’t an easy task. The song contains 9 verses, nearly all of which contain the words bed, mountain, leaves, trees, and people. Keeping that straight required a huge amount of devotion, and I’m pleased to say I’ve come out on the other side much better for it. Still, at the beginning of rehearsals, it might as well have been 90 verses. Beautiful song, though, and I’m so glad to be the one singing it.

 My playing abilities and endurance have been put to the test as well, which is a good thing! I’m not saying our arrangements are overly difficult, but it’s the combination of what we’re playing and how we’re playing it that’s such a workout for me. For instance, though I’ll list both acoustic and electric guitar as my main instrument, it’s been almost 8 years since I’ve had a purely acoustic gig–that is, acoustic only, without any amplification or miking of any sort. Being mainly an electric player, it was at first a great challenge to relearn how to play both loud and dynamically on my own, without losing the loud/quiet contrast I so dearly love. It’s easy when you’re plugged into an amp or sound system, but unplugged in a 200 seat theater, projection lies squarely on your shoulders.

It took a short time until I had once again become comfortable with this idea. Into the second week of rehearsals, I was still hoping there would be some kind of sound reinforcement. I was so acutely aware of the need for volume that it finally gave me the reason I needed to perform a neck reset on my J-45. In any case, I pressed on, spending a great deal of time practicing. I started by just strumming as loud as I could, then refining my technique and gently pulling back when the piece called for it. Just like riding a bike, all of those years of playing in bars and busking came back to me, and in no time I was flat- and finger- picking like nobody’s business. Luckily, this bit of schooling was also helped along by having the right instruments in hand. My stable is as follows:

A quick shot of my stage setup. Also noteworthy are the pedals: a VPJR volume pedal, a Boss TU-2 for quick tuning, a Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive for a simulated scream and a Strymon Bluesky Reverberator. A solid-state Fender Princeton is hidden beneath the stage.

  • 1969 Gibson Hummingbird
  • 2003 Gibson J-45
  • c. 1950s Regal Resonator
  • 2008 Martin LX1 (Nashville Tuning!)
  • 2004 Fender Jazzmaster

I’m able to cover most of the bases with those five instruments, but I’m also fortunate enough to be playing upright bass and mandolin, both of which are provided by the endlessly talented Edd Key.

After all of the rehearsal, I was back in shape and ready for action. The show, which is around 2 hours and 45 minutes long, has a huge amount of music in it, and each and every show is a thrill for me. We’re doing a huge breadth of Woody’s material, and each night there’s something new that excites me. There’s also enough movement from one instrument to the next that I never feel stuck in one position: for one song, I’m using the Hummingbird in an E standard tuning with the 6th string dropped to C, and for the next I’m on mandolin. I have to say, though, that my favorite part of the show might just be when I switch to double bass for our performance of “California Stars”, a song Woody never got to record but was tackled by Wilco and Billy Bragg on their Mermaid Avenue sessions. So fun.

The Opening

I’m no stranger to stage fright. Usually I’ll get a bit jittery before I take the stage, but once I’m up there it’s the most relaxed place I can be. I’m actually more comfortable playing music on stage than hanging out with large groups of people; it’s just the way I am.

This Land, however, was a different story. I’ve been somewhat nervous throughout the preparation phase, presumably because this was my first endeavor in the the Theatrical world and I had no idea what I was in for, save that I’d be playing music. I wanted so badly to impress those around me (all of whom are not only incredibly gifted but also well-known in the world of Theater) that I was all business for the first few weeks of rehearsal. I made sure to learn the material, and I payed strict attention to everything going on around me. It’s a different world than the one I’m used to!

Rob Burgess and Margaret Savas performing “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You”. I won’t spoil the moment for you, but this is easily one of my favorite scenes in the whole show.

To say that opening night was frightening would be an understatement. This isn’t some rock show where I can show up and play loud music for 45 minutes, goofing off between songs. Instead of a set list, I have two acts of music and stage acting to remember. I had lyrics to remember, instruments to tune and change out, and minor acting to undertake. I was worried. As we waited in our pre-show positions, anticipating our cue to start the show, everything I’d learned up to this point zipped through and out of my mind, resulting in the dreaded “blank slate” we all fear. “Oh, no.”, I thought.

The moment we walked out on stage, my nerves largely vanished, and I found that muscle memory took over. Though my mind was racing, my hands remembered what to do. It was so much fun, and when I eventually shook off the fear, I found that I was back to my old self, laughing and joking and building friendships.

Now, in our third week of performances, I’m more comfortable than ever with the songs, the acting and my role in all of it. Even better is the fact that, some time last week, the entire cast really started loosening up and started having fun with the show. Now, we’re interacting more freely and taking part in the production like a good community should, cheering each other on and agreeing with one another like a big ol’ hootenanny. The fun even continues backstage, the whole cast being more tightly knit than ever. These aren’t just coworkers; these are friends that I’ve grown to trust and love like family. I want to do this forever!

I’ll be writing more about the individual instruments in the show later on. What’s important now is that you come to the show! It’s running through Oct. 6th at the Erickson Theater, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of this show! Tickets are going fast, and can be had here.

-Michael James Adams

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Ampersand Sound Solutions’ Cherry Bomb is the… Bomb?

IED? No. C4? Grenade? Warhead? Whatever the kids are saying these days, one thing is for certain: this amp is frightfully good.

Owen Backtacks and Paul Campbell of Ampersand Sound Solutions

Back in late July, the boys from Ampersand Sound Solutions (henceforth referred to as Ampersound) stopped on by the Guitar Bar for a “demo and drink” session–a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, if I do say so myself. In tow was their entirely hand-made creation, which they lovingly refer to as the Cherry Bomb. Preemptive pun apology: This thing has explosive tone.

Mike B. will likely brand me a heretic for this, but I have a confession to make: I’ve never played a Tweed Bassman that I liked. There, I said it. Black and Silverface models are the ones I connect with, but each and every time I’ve plugged into a ’59 Bassman–vintage or reissue–I just couldn’t get past what I felt to be sterile tone and a lack of punch. I felt this way so strongly that, for a time, I associated all tweed amps with lackluster tone and avoided them at all costs. I know, pretty harsh.

Purists will likely burn me at the stake, but even if I never liked them I fully understand why they’re so coveted. The ’59 Bassman circuit is regularly lauded for their touch sensitivity, natural compression, simplicity and ability to fill a room with lots of sound. These are all qualities I look for when choosing an amp, but something about this model just doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s the 4×10″ speaker complement, the clean-as-can-be circuit design (I like just a touch of hair on my clean sounds) or the loud/louder volume controls. Still, when other people play them, I think they sound fantastic.

Enter the Cherry Bomb, Ampersound’s tweaked and beefed-up version of the ’59 Bassman circuit. Ampersound have taken liberties with this tried-and-true circuit design, and the results are impressive, especially for a guy like me. The most notable difference between the stock model and the Cherry Bomb is that they’ve substituted Sovtek 6550WE power tubes whereas originals are 6L6 based. And wouldn’t you know it, 6550s are my favorite tube. Remember that punch I whined about earlier? They deliver that punch, but retain the transparency of 6L6 tubes with just a bit more headroom. Rectifier is a 5U4GB, which works in tandem with the 6550s to provide healthy sag.

Other tweaks include inputs decoupled from the rest of the circuit (for both cleanliness and safety’s sake) and beefier power diodes and filtering in the bias circuit for stability in less than ideal conditions. This means the amp is better able to handle fluctuations in voltage without the kid glove treatment or catastrophic failure.

All of this is fine and good, but there’s one question that I know anyone reading this is asking: “How does it sound?” Pretty damn good. The boys have spared no expense in making this amp an exercise in tonal bliss, and the result is an amp with all of the dynamics, compression and warmth of the original, but with more… everything. It has punch, precision control over volume, and an updated tone that is essentially everything I felt was missing about the originals I’ve played. While it retains the woody texture of the Fender design, the Cherry Bomb inexplicably doubles down on tonal control, with controls that are not only precisely centered on aural sweet spots, but provide a vast range of variation with the turn of a knob. I swear, I’ve never heard an amp react so noticeably to minor tweaks, like a solider taking orders. Especially that Presence control, which is a knob that I usually set at minimum on most amps; this one was actually usable without destroying my ears.

Why is this? Owen Backtacks of Ampersand Sound Solutions explains:

“…we modified the presence circuit to use a 25k pot instead of the usual 5k as we found the standard Bassman circuit was rather inefficient at controlling the negative feedback and was inherently leaking some voltage across that pot unnecessarily. Now the presence control is way smoother and more pronounced.”

All of this adds up to more control and less harshness. It’s not just the high frequencies that are worth mentioning here; plenty of bass and a woody-yet-full midrange add up to a delightfully rich sound, and no matter what settings I used on the amp I couldn’t find one that wasn’t usable. It didn’t matter which input we plugged into–or if we jumpered them–the Cherry Bomb does not have a bad sound in it. This thing would be a huge asset in a studio environment–it could even be the only amp around and still cover all of the bases. Wooly jazz tones? Check. Glassy Fender brilliance? Check. Goosed Marshallesque mids? Checkmate.

Mike B. taking the Cherry Bomb for a test drive. Dig on that Paisley Telecaster!

Cranking this amp is a joy. In our small shop, we didn’t have the ability to go as full-on loud as we would have liked (the less our neighbors hate us the happier we are) but even so, I was really struck by how this amp never muddied up. The higher that volume knob went, the more three-dimensional this amp sounded. While it’s designed for clean headroom, the amp took on a really pleasant sort of grit once we hit 5, though in our test it never went into full on drive territory. Turning up, it just kept on sounding great, seemingly egging us on to go even higher.

Ever played an amp that felt like it was having more fun than you? That’s the Cherry Bomb. And did I mention that this amp LOVES pedals? I just so happened to have my monolithic pedal board on hand, and I decided to see if I could tame this amplifier. It responded dutifully to medium overdrive courtesy of the Fulltone OCD, taking the middy presence of that pedal and imparting its own roundness and bite. I could have nailed SRV, Angus Young or Kerry King here.

Moving on to a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, I was surprised to hear the amp respond differently, cheerfully lapping up all of the harsher fizziness I could muster and throwing back some of its own in return in true ’60s fashion, as well as thickening up  on the low end. A pedal famous for its ability to kill amplifiers due to its excessive amount of volume, I’ve never been able to use the Fuzz Factory past its 10 o’clock setting with my Marshall JMP. I’m happy to report that the Cherry Bomb took noon to 1:30 in stride, shrugging off my puny attempts at ruination.

Switching out for a Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive (an amazing pedal we’ll be reviewing sometime soon) this amp went from a classic rock powerhouse to a harbringer of sonic doom of apocalyptic proportions. Oscillations, gated fuzz, and even maxing out both volume and gain couldn’t KO this one; it seemed to have a death wish, smiling all the while. It. Sounded. Huge.

My final test for breaking up an amp involves what I call “Organ Tone”: my VPJR volume pedal, an EHX Micro POG, a Line 6 DL4 and the Strymon Bluesky Reverberator. Everything is set to full on the Micro POG, the DL4 has a Gilmourish slow delay and a slight boost, and the Bluesky is on its room setting, with the most cavernous reverb one could ever ask for. While this usually produces a beautiful, make-you-say-hallelujah pipe organ sound, when paired with the wrong amp it could also provide huge amounts of breakup. Surprisingly, the amp didn’t break up at all and was possibly the best example of that tone that I’ve heard. And once again, the Cherry Bomb was all, “Like, whatever.”

Some of the tonal goodness of this amp can also be attributed to its mismatched speaker complement: two Jensen P10Q ALNICOs and two Celestion Greenbacks. In this configuration, each set of speakers plays well with the other, making up for what the other set is lacking. The P10Qs have the depth and presence that the Greenbacks lack, whereas the Greenbacks bring their signature midrange focus to the mix, with an old-school crispiness that makes for an exceedingly versatile setup.

Words can only do so much when speaking of tone, but as for aesthetics I can just show you how breathtakingly good-looking this amp is:


It could be furniture, but it’s also an amp! The cabinet has nearly the same dimensions as a traditional Bassman, but is just a bit taller and shallower from front to back. Speakers attach to a Birch ply baffle and are housed in a beautifully crafted, dovetailed solid Cherry cabinet that one has to see to truly believe. The face of the amp is capped off in flamed maple, with precisely rounded corners and finishing touches that all spell Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y. From wiring to construction, this thing is a beast!

I know I’ve talked and talked about this amp already, so I’m going to sum it all up for you: Ampersand Sound Solutions has a real winner on its hands with this one, and the amp is exciting as hell; you’d be wise to look out for this one. Whether you like Tweed Bassman amps or not, this is one to watch. If you love ’em, this one could provide you with a more versatile version of your beloved tweed friend that’s great for gigs or recording. If you’re like me, it could mean sonic salvation, a tonal transformation, a Bassman Baptism of sorts.

All I can say is, I’m a believer.

-Michael James Adams

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