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The Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI: a 100% Pun-Free Upgrade Guide

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My Squier VI lounging with Paul Frank’s amazing Custom Shop model, strung with Gabriel Tenorio strings

While Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar seem more popular than ever, the Bass VI still seems mysterious, or at the very least, under-appreciated. Players seem confused by its mere presence in the catalog: Is it a bass? Is it a guitar? Is it a baritone?

Let’s clear up the confusion right now: The Bass VI is a bass guitar in the strictest sense. Tuned E to E a full octave lower than a standard guitar, the VI is an incredibly versatile instrument that’s as well-suited for familiar chord shapes as it is for punchy bass lines.

Right now, the easiest way to get into a VI is the Squier Vintage Modified model. Fundamentally a great instrument, the Squier VI ticks all of the right boxes for me: it has Jaguar-style pickups and the all-important fourth Bass Cut switch, it’s affordable, and it’s damn fun to play. We’re still talking about an import model, so if you pick one up and find it lacking, I’m here to provide a handy upgrade guide to the “ba-VI” of “VI-sessfully” upping your Squier’s “VI appeal” into a machine for making “mu-VI.” (My deepest apologies for how poorly those puns worked.)

The first mod I’m going to suggest can hardly be called a mod at all, but believe you me, it’s crucial.

STRINGS

Far and away, the most common complaint with current Bass VI models is that the low E string lacks tension. You’ll hear it described as “floppy” or “sloppy,” and those adjectives sum it up nicely. It feels unbalanced and just can’t stand up to aggressive picking.

The problem with your Bass VI’s low E is thanks to a too-light gauge of string. When Fender released the Bass VI in 1961, the standard set was made up of strings gauged .026”-.095”, and that .095” is key here. At some point in the recent past, the low E string changed to .084” which is woefully under-built for the task. A .095” E is going to feel taut, stable, and will gleefully accept heavy attack, whereas the lighter string ends up feeling, well, just as described in the paragraph above.

In my view, the most essential mod you can perform on your VI is installing a heavier, more balanced string set. Even without upgrading the bridge or swapping pickups, this very simple and easily overlooked tweak can tighten up the whole instrument and bring back the low end that’s so sorely missing with the stock strings.

Because this information doesn’t seem to be collected anywhere, here’s a handy shortlist of string makers that offer a good set of VI strings with adequately heavy E string, which I’ll update as I stumble upon them. The only set Fender currently offers is gauged .024″-.084″, sadly.

La Bella (Flats and Rounds)
Kalium (Rounds, tons of options)
Gabriel Tenorio String Company (Rounds and Gabriel’s new Ground Wounds)

Or, if you want a genuine set from the 1960s

BRIDGE

A '62 Bass VI that I recently fell in love with at the Fretboard Journal Summit, courtesy of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

An original ’62 Bass VI that I recently fell in love with at the Fretboard Journal Summit, courtesy of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

If you ever have a chance to inspect a vintage Bass VI, you’ll notice that the original bridge is much wider than the one found on most reissues, which is just a standard offset bridge slapped on likely due to the costs of tooling-up for such a niche item. That original 1” width is a big part of the Bass VI functionality puzzle, which translates to more flexibility when it comes to intonation. Original examples have nearly twice the saddle travel as the current part, and with the Bass VI’s 30” scale, every little bit is precious.

The stock Squier VI bridge

The stock Squier VI bridge

The bridge found on the Squier Bass VI is essentially the same as the other VM offsets, save for the adjustable Mustang-style saddles, which have deep grooves and the ability to set the radius of the strings to match the fretboard. It does, however, have a propensity to rattle around so much that even correct offset setup techniques may not quell it. (See my Demystifying series for more info)

What to do? Track down an original bridge from the 1960s or 1970s? Nah, Staytrem’s got you covered with their fantastic and appropriately wide Bass VI bridge. If you’re looking for a stable bridge that’ll intonate for sure, this is the way to go. I have a Mastery on my personal Squier, and while it does intonate perfectly for me, your mileage may vary depending on string gauge and type as well as setup.

TREM

img_8743As I mentioned in my recent article on the J.Mascis model, if you’re planning on using the vibrato you really should upgrade this part. Import vibratos are made of inferior metals and often have manufacturing flaws that render them less stable than their US-made counterparts.

A great solution here is obtaining a Fender AVRI/AV65 vibrato, especially if you’re on a budget. I’ve chosen the Mastery Vibrato for my own specifically because of the heavy-duty spring Mastery uses, which replicates the sturdier feel of early 1960s units and really stands up to the extra tension of those thick strings.

 

NUT

As you might expect, the nut work on these instruments is passable, but not great. The soft plastic used wears easily, and the slots are often too tight even for the string gauge used at the factory. I’ve also seen a number of them with poor string spacing, but hey, I don’t expect perfection on a sub-$500 instrument.

I highly recommend having the nut replaced by a competent tech in the material of your choice; my preference is bone. And for those of you that use the vibrato, a properly-cut nut is your best defense against tuning issues.

ELECTRONICS

The electronics in the Squier Vintage Modified series are, understandably, on the cheap side of things. I’ve seen and heard of a number of VMs that had wiring issues or faulty parts right out of the box, so if you’re going to be using this instrument heavily I would insist that you have the instrument rewired with higher quality pots, switches, capacitors, and even replace the jack while you’re at it. Not only will you end up with an instrument you can really trust, you’ll also have better sound as a result.

Look to CTS, Bourns, or my good friends at Emerson Custom for pots, Switchcraft for the jack and switches, and any number of options exist for capacitors. Most of these parts can be found via AllParts or Angela.

Note: US parts will require enlarged holes on the volume-tone control plate.


PICKUPS

While I confess that you can get by with the Squier in its stock configuration, let’s be honest: there are better pickups out there. They’re a little trebly, a bit noisy, and too weak on output to keep up with other basses. It’s well worth your time to explore the myriad pickup options that exist in today’s market, but where to start?

Star Trek stickers optional, of course

Star Trek stickers optional, of course

In my mind, Curtis Novak has his finger firmly on the pulse of offset guitars’ unique capabilities, and he’s the first person I bring up when a customer has a specific sound in their head. From traditional sounds to obscure designs stuffed into familiar covers, Curtis excels at wringing every last drop of tone from your instrument.

For Bass VI, he offers both the early ’61-’62 Jack Bruce-style pickups and the Jaguar-style pickups that came as standard on the model from 1962 onward. However, if you’re looking for something different, I’m sure Curtis could wind up a trio of his Jaguar-sized Lipsticks, some unique Gold Foils, or even something humbucking if you’re that kind.

Another good option would be the fantastic pickups made by our friend Jaime of At The Creamery. He offers a VI set with much higher output than the stock pickups, and with custom options if desired. Jaime does exceptional work!

On my personal VI, I started out by building a set out of three Fender AV65 Jaguar pickups, which I really like. They’re affordable and great-sounding pickups for the price, but ultimately, a little too bright for my tastes. If you need a good Tic-Tac sound, this would be a great way to go. If you create a set out of three separate pickups, do pay attention to output in each position as well as polarity to make sure they all play well together.

Currently, my VI is loaded with a set wound by our good friends a Lollar Pickups, which have a bump in midrange and output, and they really keep up with my other instruments no matter the setting. Plenty of bass on tap and clarity through any amp. I’m a huge fan of Lollar Pickups.

TUNERS

Prepare to be amazed: there’s no good reason to toss these. The Kluson-style tuners you find stock on the Squier VI are great. On the many examples I’ve had across my bench, I have never found them to be problematic. Keep them.

LINE VI

When Squier introduced their take on the VI, I was immediately excited. At the time, the VI wasn’t an instrument I was keen to spend a lot of money on, simply because I didn’t think I’d be using it heavily. Squier made that sound accessible and did so with a lot of bang for the buck. When you mod this instrument, it isn’t so much a lipstick-on-a-pig scenario, you’re genuinely taking a good instrument and making it better.

My VI and '73 Precision, just after we got back from tour.

My VI and ’73 Precision, just after we got back from tour.

To that point, I recently joined my good friends Vanessa and Sarah, a duo better known as Leo Leo. The LA-based contemplative rock-pop outfit plays complex, beautiful music that’s as energetic as it is challenging; they are one of my favorite bands. When they asked me to tour with them on bass, I have to admit that I was overjoyed and overwhelmed, especially with just a week to learn ten songs. It was a lot of work, but I’m so proud of the noise we made together at those shows.

At the center of my bass sound: my trusty Squier VI. I plugged into a borrowed Salvage Custom board (thank you, Gabriel!) populated with pedal necessities run through a mini SVT. Night after night, that thing performed beautifully and never let me down. Even as we rehearsed, it became clear that the VI was the sound. It proved to be such a bruiser that next time, I may leave my ’73 Precision Bass at home.

Each time I took it out of its case, I was immediately greeted with questions from perplexed onlookers that wondered about my weird bass. I showed it off proudly and handed it over to person after person, none of whom could believe what they were playing was a lowly Squier. There was only one occasion before a show where a churlish bassist chided me for playing––and I quote––a “piece of shit.”

I’m happy to say that I proved him wrong that night. I’m proud to play my Squier.

Here's how that Squier looked the day I recieved it. (Thanks, Nate!)

Here’s how that Squier looked the day I recieved it. (Thanks, Nate!) See below for a post-mod comparison.

This one's getting a TON of use in the @leoleoband set for the tour that starts—holy shit—tomorrow. Now, the weight of this Squier Bass VI never bothered me until we started this hours-long rehearsal process, but at the end of the night my back is screaming at me for relief. I think it may be time to look into a real '60s VI refin or something, that is of course assuming that the band wants to keep me! 😁 I also wish it were brightly-colored, but eh, such is life. Upgrades: -Lollar pickups -Fenderparts mint guard -Mastery Bridge + Vibrato (thanks Woody!) -upgraded wiring -La Bella Deep Talkin' Flats -Matching headstock #guitar #bass #bassvi #leoleo #tour #masatour #makeamericashakeagain #squier #fender #offsetguitars #lollarpickups #masterybridge #fenderparts

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#Weezerquest: The Story of ‘My Name Is Jonas Brothers’

IMG_5567-impIf you happen to follow us on our various social media platforms (Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook) then you’re probably already keyed into the fact that we LOVE Weezer. And it’s also true that we have a bit of an obsession with the band, from their sound and gear, to the lore and mystery surrounding the parts guitars, various amp heads and studio setups that make the records we love.

We’re particularly enamored with Weezer’s first two records, 1994’s self-titled debut –– affectionately known as ‘Blue’ to fans –– and 1996’s Pinkerton. Brilliantly crafted power-pop abounded within, with lyrics that require thought and inspection to decode further than the oft-used “geek rock” label, as well as some of the most massive guitar tones I’ve ever heard. And, much like finding newly-unearthed deleted scenes from Star Wars, Weezer’s unreleased B-sides were just as exciting.

As you can imagine, our daily conversations at the shop would often turn to deep, Weezer-related questions; we’d discuss the effect Matt Sharp’s raw, distorted tone on Pinkerton affected the feel of that record; how our minds were blown when we first realized Blue was recorded with an old Les Paul Special DC with P90s, rather than the Strat with humbuckers we see in concerts; how Weezer sounded different from most bands simply because they used low 5ths in their barre chords. Invariably, the question “Just how in the hell did they get that tone?” would turn into an hours-long debate, riddled with speculation and adult beverages.

An in-process shot of my Rivers Cuomo tribute Strat and mock 8×10 cab!

An in-process shot of my Rivers Cuomo tribute Strat and mock 8×10 cab!

Over the years, we joked often about starting a Weezer cover band, of which there are many in Seattle. Once Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar started taking on a life of its own, it didn’t take long for us to start talking about that old idea in a serious tone. Finally in late 2013, we decided to really go for it, but with one major caveat: we didn’t want to just be another cover band. We wanted to go full-Weezer, replicating the gear responsible for some of our favorite rock tones.

Given the amount of guitars and amps that come through the shop, we decided to get absolutely manic, using our gear hunting skills and detail-oriented minds to deeply research all of the equipment the band used during those years, getting as close as possible to the look, sound and experience that made Weezer so formidable. We poured over the albums themselves, sought out live and studio photos from 1994-1998 (many of which were scans of developed film) and accumulated massive databases of screenshots and the like in order to nail down every last spec we could reasonably determine. We combed through interviews, Weezerpedia articles, forums… you name it.

It’s been a months-long process, but let me tell you: it’s been well-worth it. We’ve beautifully replicated the guitars, amp rigs and modifications that made Weezer sound like Weezer, and we’ve done so with fervor and conviction. We’ve even been lucky enough to gain the attention of the band themselves through the process! Former bassist Matt Sharp has even taken an interest in our attempts at recreating his iconic Jazz Bass, taunting us via social media to let us know when we missed something!

That’s my close-as-I-can-get-from-photos Matt Sharp Jazz Bass replica, worn by our good friend Leah, who used her attentive eye to recreate the ’96’ sticker found on the pickguard of the original bass. Matt Sharp posted the above photo on his Instagram account along with some extremely kind words, our contact info and a challenge to his followers:

…help me salute and celebrate these two lovely lunatics, go to Mike And Mike’s Guitar Bar and take a pic with this crazy, monstrosity of a bajo-doppelgänger and I’ll regram whomever posts the best pic.

The best part? I caught his message about us right after playing a killer first show with our Weezer tribute act, My Name Is Jonas Brothers. Great night or greatest night? What an incredible honor!

In the few weeks since our very first show, the response we’ve gotten from Weezer fans and aficionados has been, well, overwhelming. Even before we played a note, our Tumblr and Instagram followers and friends were cheering us on, and our equally-obsessive bandmates have spurred us on to a level of detail we never thought possible. And frequent Instagram commenter Dan Murphy even coined a hashtag just for us: #weezerquest. (Use it to follow along!)

So now, we’d like to take you on a tour through our journey to put together what we believe might just be the most badass Weezer cover band on the planet. Also, we feel it necessary to document not only our processes and instruments, but also whatever illness we might have that compels us to get so exacting with this band.

And if you didn’t notice, the photo at the beginning of the article isn’t the gatefold photo from 1994’s Blue album. THAT’S OUR GEAR!

#weezerquest is live!

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Introducing the Skjelstang: Difficult to Pronounce, Impossible to Put Down

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A few months back our good friend Skye Skjelset of Fleet Foxes’ fame (also a stint in The Walkmen and his noise/free jazz band Japanese Guy) contacted us about wanting to build another custom guitar, and we couldn’t have been more delighted. See, we’ve done a lot of work for the Foxes and their various other projects, and each of those guys has amazing taste in gear, both vintage and custom. Any time we can help someone realize their vision – whether it’s world-touring acts or weekend warriors – it reminds us why we even do this job in the first place: we love music, we love guitars and we love people.

You may remember the last guitar we built for Skye some time ago: a four-pickup monstrosity of a Fender Jazzmaster lovingly dubbed ‘The Skyemaster’ complete with a vintage neck and vibrato, Mastery Bridge and two Lollar Jazzmaster pickups with a Gold Foil in the middle position and a Novak lipstick pickup behind the bridge. Let me tell you, what a guitar! The sounds one can coax from that beast are nearly endless, from your standard punchy Jazzmaster fare to amp-killing, raucous sound from the ‘foil and even ghostly, far-away eeriness from the BTB unit. It’s an unbelievable guitar and you can hear it on Japanese Guy’s latest release.

IMG_0916-impAs you can imagine, Skye was already having some big ideas for his ‘new’ guitar based on the Fender Mustang: ‘Stang body, 24” neck and three pickups, loosely inspired by the Mustang Thurston Moore was seen with back in the ‘90s. Skye had loved that guitar since high school (and who hasn’t!) and wanted something close to this ‘hero’ guitar.

We deliberated for weeks over specs – pickups, electronics, switching options, necessary tones and how to get them, and any little touches that would make this guitar truly his. Skye’s tastes, however bold they may be, are decidedly vintage in look and feel, so instead of sourcing a new body with custom routing, we were able to procure a vintage ’65 Mustang neck and a refinished body of similar vintage. (We did have to talk Skye out of buying an absolutely beautiful, original black ’65 Mustang for this project, citing our refusal to start removing wood from an otherwise perfectly-kept piece)

Here’s what we came up with:

  • vintage body, neck and hardware
  • three Lollar Blackface pickups (with deglossed pickup covers for that aged look)
  • custom switching that would allow the outer pickups to be selectable independently of the middle unit
  • 1 Meg volume and a 250K tone for the bridge and neck pickups
  • a Mustang three-way slider switch (on/off/phase) for the middle pickup and an individual roller volume for it in the other pickguard slot (1 meg)
  • Mastery Bridge (of course!)
  • a modified Jazzmaster vibrato arm
  • an aged mint green vintage-style guard from our friend fenderparts, which I later modified for the middle pickup and roller volume and toggle switch

The end result is elegant of the above list turned out to be a little mysterious and very punk rock. Honestly, nailing down the basic specs for this build was the easy part. Figuring out just how to make all of this work required some more thought. Read on for in-depth details on how we created “The Skjelstang!” (Pronounced: shyell-stang)

BODY SCULPTING

As you might expect, we had to remove quite a bit of wood to make this custom pickup scheme fit properly. Adding a middle pickup and a toggle switch to a Mustang means removing a lot of wood, but using a Jazzmaster-style roller volume bracket required not only more routing, but modifying the metal bracket for the usual rhythm circuit controls.IMG_0777

It seemed that the best place for the roller control was between the middle and neck pickups, given that the spacing between the bridge pickup and the slider switch was already so tight. I took out about 40% of the wood left between the neck and middle pickups to accommodate, and I took the wood down to just below the original routing depth to ensure that everything would fit three-dimensionally.

As for the bracket, I cut it in half and drilled new holes for proper mounting screw placement, then cut a channel in the middle of it for the roller disc to pass through. Because of the placement of the pickguard and the slot for the slider switch, I had to get creative with how we were mounting the mini Alpha pot to the bracket, flipping it around so the disc was on the inside of the bracket with the potentiometer’s casing facing the pickups.

ELECTRONICS

Certainly there are many ways to have the pickups working independently of one another, but serving Skye’s needs was the first priority. Initially we thought using a Jaguar switching plate to be the best option; the three on/off switches usually found on Jags could be repurposed to accommodate three pickups instead of the normal 2 pickups and ‘strangle’ switch combo, a modification which we’d done before with the Skyemaster. We also discussed using a ‘Wronski’ plate, so-called because of surf legend Dave Wronski’s custom blade switch plates on his guitars. Then there was the control plate found on the Kurt Cobain Jaguar, which has a toggle switch and an on/off switch for the strangle.

After discussing all of this with Skye, none of the above options were going to work; yes, Skye needs the third pickup to be independently selectable, but he was also hoping to be able to blend it in with the others regardless of pickup selection. This presented a slight challenge with respect to both wiring and space, but in the end I’m really proud of our solution.

IMG_0917-impOn the bass side of the Mustang body, you’ll usually see two three-way slider switches which govern the pickups. These switches not only turn the pickups on or off, but the third position reverses the phase of each unit, enabling more tones than a more simple layout might produce. This is one of the coolest things about Mustangs in my opinion.

Gleaning inspiration from both of the aforementioned guitars, we came up with a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario: both neck and bridge pickups are wired to the toggle first, then to the lead circuit controls just as you might find with a Jazzmaster.* The middle pickup is wired to its volume roller, then to the three-way slider so Skye can still control the middle volume independently while still opting for specific phase settings. The lead and middle circuits meet at the output jack, allowing the user to blend the middle in as needed or to cut the other pickups so the middle can be used independently. Pretty great!

*this, of course, is doing away with the rhythm circuit entirely

PLAYABILITY

IMG_0926-impThe vintage Mustang neck on this guitar has a 24″ scale, 7.25” radius fretboard, a new bone nut hand-cut by yours truly and original frets. I’ve dressed them, but in the future we may re-fret the neck altogether depending on how Skye feels about the guitar in a few months. And honestly, there’s only a little life left in those frets, so it’s better to do that sooner rather than later given the Foxes’ recording schedule. We’ll see.

As with all of Skye’s offset guitars, it was obvious that we’d be installing a Mastery Bridge. In our opinion, the Mastery Bridge is the best aftermarket upgrade you can get for your offset guitar so you can imagine that it not only sounds great but plays superbly with this bridge installed. Speaking of sound…

SOUND

Usually, a Mustang has two flat-pole Stratocaster-style pickups mated to the usual 250K pots. On the Skjelstang we used a 1 meg volume and a 250K tone coupled with a .047uf Orange Drop capacitor, which gives the guitar the ability to get VERY bright should Skye require it. His other guitars are mainly Jazzmasters and Jaguars, so this isn’t out of left field for him. We originally went with 1 meg controls for both volume and tone, but the result was so shrill that even my initial test run with the guitar was a painful exercise. Stepping down the tone to 250K really warmed it up, even at 10 on the dial. I would estimate that rolling off the tone 20-30% approximates more standard Mustang sounds.

Now that the guitar’s fully assembled and finalized, I can tell you that I enjoy immensely the addition of that middle pickup on this guitar. I would never refer to Mustangs as tonally limited, but I’m surprised at how much adding the extra pickup has opened up the sonic landscape of this instrument. Yes, having the middle paired with the neck or bridge pickup elicits quacky, nearly Stratocaster sounds, but the short scale of the Mustang combined with heavy strings makes for a more springy, unique tone. Running all three pickups together sounds HUGE, and reversing the polarity of the middle pickup makes for some entertaining rhythm sounds and haunting leads. Endless fun can be had here, folks.

At the end of the day, it’s all about serving the needs of the player, and in this case I feel as though we’ve hit the nail on the head. Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t change anything about the guitar down the line – we’ve made more than a few alterations to the Skyemaster, catering to whim after whim as Skye became more familiar with both the instrument as his personal needs. We fully expect some tweaks to happen, but in terms of taking the original concept and bringing it to life, I don’t think we could have done a better job!

Seriously, this thing is wild!

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar, Pt. 2: Bridge Over Troubled Vibrato

IMG_2101By Michael James Adams

A few weeks back, we took some time to fully explain the electronic innerworkings of Fender’s paradoxically well-loved and oft-maligned models, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. For many players, the tonal options available on these guitars is a breath of fresh air; for others, the switching becomes an exercise in futility, leaving them to wonder how to just turn on the bridge pickup. Hopefully we helped!

In today’s column, we’re going to dive into what be the most misunderstood and subsequently damning design element on these amazing guitars: the bridge.

It’s a common occurrence for players who are used to Strats and Teles or Les Pauls to get the Offset itch and pick up a Jazzmaster or Jaguar and find that it doesn’t play quite the way they expected: strings will slip out of their grooves with moderate pick attack, the bridge sways back and forth with vibrato action, and sympathetic ‘ghost’ notes will ring out from behind the bridge, prompting many stymied players to install a Buzzstop. Please, don’t do that just yet – I’m begging you to get to know your seemingly unwieldy friend before you do something rash.

Shim Shenanigans

Conventional guitar wisdom tells us that shims are bad. They’re tone-sucking, sustain-killing, useless pieces of paper that shouldn’t come anywhere near a neck pocket, right? Well, about that…

That's A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

That’s A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

Most of the vintage Fender guitars we love came from the factory with at least one shim installed, and I’ve seen vintage guitars with four or more original shims! Telecasters, for example, might have a shim in the front edge of the neck pocket so that when the guitar is strung, the strings sit closer to the top of the ashtray bridge instead of down in the middle, which isn’t exactly the most comfortable place for picking. Also, the height adjustment screws on the brass bridge saddles could be longer than necessary, which means sharp pieces of metal digging into your picking hand. Not fun.

Many players operate under the belief that a shim will kill their tone, and to an extent they have a point. Obviously, for maximum sustain and tonal transfer, it makes sense to have a tight neck pocket with full wood-on-wood contact. Here’s the thing: tone is subjective, and the vast majority of us won’t be able to hear the difference between a shimmed and un-shimmed guitar. Add to that the fact that many of the old-school tones we’re all chasing were created with shimmed guitars, and the argument gets even more murky. And, unlike Strats and Teles, Jazzmasters and Jaguars were actually designed with shims in mind!

Break Angle Benefits

You see, Leo Fender knew that his floating bridge design needed a certain amount of downward force to work properly, so he used shims in the leading edge of the neck pocket to adjust the angle of the neck, causing the strings to pass over the bridge at a sharper angle. This is called the break angle.

The further back he tilted the neck, the bridge would have to be set higher to achieve playable action, and thus, more downward force on the bridge. More downward force on the bridge also means greater tonal transfer via the contact between the bridge and its thimbles, which in turn transfer that vibration to the body, and then who the hell really knows how much sustain and resonance you’re losing or gaining?! It boggles the mind.

When players complain about their strings slipping out of the tiny grooves on their saddles, more often than not the problem isn’t the saddle, it’s the aforementioned break angle.  A sharper break angle means more downward force on the bridge, which in turn helps to keep the strings seated! One other solution is to deepen the grooves with a file, which is a fine solution that I’ve had to use a few times. It’s not my first choice fix, but with some guitars with worn or import bridges, there’s not much else you can do, short of replacing the bridge. More on that later.

Players will also cite excessive mechanical buzz from their bridges as a source of frustration, but again, I point to neck/break angle as the first solution. Most of the time, the bridge buzzes because of a weak break angle and thus, less pressure, which means the saddles themselves aren’t tightly seated on the bridge plate. Tilt that neck back and voila, the buzz disappears. At least, it usually does; new bridges that haven’t been played-in will often make noise because they don’t have years of oxidation helping to tighten things up. In that case, either sweat a lot or dab some blue Loc-Tite* on the saddle screws, which will not only diminish rattle but also ensure that screws don’t turn when you don’t want them to.

The other solution to this problem is the Buzz-Stop, an add-on unit that screws into the trem plate and forces the strings down toward the body. While this solution certainly works, it also kills the vibe of having a Jazzmaster or Jaguar; the strings behind the bridge are deadened – a huge part of what makes these guitars  so fun! – and the vibrato has another point of friction to contend with, making it work less efficiently. It also makes the guitar feel different in terms of playability, but feel is subjective.IMG_4061

Rock. YEAH. Ing. YEAH. Bridge. YEAH. YEAH. YEAH!

For the Jazzmaster, Leo Fender designed a new “floating” vibrato system which revolved around a bridge that rocks back and forth as the whammy bar is actuated and promised unparalleled control and flutter as well as better tuning stability. But if this system was supposed to be so great, why does it seem like everyone complains about it?

A lot of people don’t understand that the bridge is supposed to rock, which understandably freaks them out. I’ll admit that this feature isn’t my favorite element of the design, but it really does work, but not perfectly. The bridge doesn’t always return to its zero position, but this is a problem just about every trem system on the market has, and if we lived in a perfect world it would be enough.

If the rocking bridge bothers you and makes your intonation spotty, a lot of us will wrap the bridge with foil tape, which locks it into place in its thimbles. The vibrato still works well like this, but again, it’s not a total solution. This is yet another issue addressed by the Mastery Bridge, with its larger diameter posts that fit snugly into the bridge thimbles.

A Word About String Gauge

When Leo was rolled out the Jazzmaster, he intended to market the guitar to Jazz players, hence the addition of the darker preset rhythm circuit. Because of this, the guitar was also designed with heavy-gauge flat-wound strings in mind. Back in the day, light guitar strings weren’t readily available, especially when it came to flats. That’s why you so often hear older guitarists talking about using a banjo string on the high E and moving the rest of the set over one string! Jazz players were often using sets as heavy as .014”, and .011” sets were considered pretty measly by comparison.

When the Jazzmaster rolled out, the idea was that these jazzers would be using at least .012” flat sets on the guitar, which have much more tension than today’s slinkier round-wound strings. Heavier strings equals greater tension, get it? If you ever try to put flat-wound 12s on a Jazzmaster, they usually won’t go anywhere.

When you want to use light strings on a Jazzmaster or Jaguar, you’re going to have to compensate somehow. You’ll need to increase the break angle and adjust the bridge, but if you’re going lighter than .011” sets you might also consider swapping out the bridge for those found on Fender Mustang guitars, which have a single, deep groove for each string. Or, you could go for the ultimate upgrade, the Mastery Bridge, but I’d make that recommendation to anyone regardless of string gauge. The Mastery Bridge is hands-down the best upgrade you can make to your Fender Offset guitar in my opinion. With it, you may still need a bit of a neck angle adjustment, but your strings will definitely stay on their saddles.

Next time, we’ll take a brief look behind the bridge and how to work with the vibrato unit for greater tuning stability and control. Wanna go wild and return to pitch? We’ve got you covered!

Mastery on a '58. Yessir.

Mastery on a ’58. Yessir.

*CAUTION: Never, ever use the red Loc-Tite on guitar parts unless you want them permanently frozen in place. The blue variety is meant for a non-permanent bond, allowing the user to make adjustments down the line. I think they’ve just come out with a green formula as well that’s not as strong, but I haven’t used it. Also, that stuff dries clear, so don’t freak out when you put blue goop all over your shiny new guitar. It’s cool. Simmer down.

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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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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 1

IMG_3071-impBy Michael James Adams

It’s no secret that we here at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar are BIG fans of Fender’s oft-maligned Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars. Top of the line in their day, these guitars are perhaps the most misunderstood instruments that Leo Fender ever created, a sad truth that to this day follows these wonderful guitars like a scarlet letter.

Why are these guitars so misjudged? For starters, Fender’s line of “Offset” guitars – so called because of the adjusted waistline body design – shared little in common with their more straightforward brethren, the Telecaster and Stratocaster. Those guitars were plain-as-day in terms of fit and functionality; when one looks at a Tele or a Strat, there’s little question as to the purpose of their respective three- and five-way switches, where the strings anchor, or what kind of music one can play on them.

When first released in 1958, the Jazzmaster was a bit more nebulous than its forebears, intended for Jazz players who largely dismissed the guitar. The first Fender guitar with a rosewood fretboard, the Jazzmaster also included Leo’s latest innovations including the floating bridge/vibrato unit and wide, flat pickups designed to pick up more of the string’s vibrational length, resulting in less sustain and a warmer overall tone than the Telecaster or Stratocaster. Luckily, instrumental rock and surf players (and even a few country players!) soon embraced the guitar, giving the Jazzmaster a new direction.

IMG_3779-impBy the time the Jaguar was released in 1962, the surf craze was in full swing and it would appear that Leo tailor-made the guitar to appeal to instrumental rockers. Chrome for days, a slightly modified, faster body, a shorter 24″ scale and a newly-designed Fender Mute all contributed to the wild looks and distinctively percussive sound of the model.

Hard to pin down as they may have been, these two models were wildly popular in the early to mid sixties, with sales numbers overtaking those of the Strat and Tele, which were at that time experiencing stagnated sales and a general view in the guitar world as being old-fashioned. The new, sleeker Offset Fender guitars certainly sold well, but soon enough public opinion began to sour. What went wrong?

As I mentioned before, these guitars shared little of the design elements of their predecessors, which is something many of us appreciate today. Unique controls and string length behind the bridge appeal to those of us looking for something different, from shoegazers to alt. country troubadours. With that recent spate of popularity have come numerous upgraded parts that promise to improve the feel and playability of Offset guitars, including the mind-blowing Mastery Bridge and the Staytrem. Sadly, this lack of familiarity may have proved to be these models’ undoing in the long run, with players frequently complaining that the guitars were confusing, poorly made or impossible to keep in tune.

In this series, I’ll attempt to address a few of these complaints, and explain why the very designs that confound so many are, in reality, brilliant.

“IT HAS TOO MANY SWITCHES!”
It’s not uncommon to hear the above phrase uttered ad nauseum at guitar stores and internet forums alike. It’s frequently followed by, “What the hell do they do?!” and “My brain hurts.” In reality, the switches aren’t all that hard to figure out, and with just a few minutes of patient open-mindedness most players can easily adapt to the layout.

IMG_3699Jazzmasters have the decidedly more familiar control layout, with a Gibsonesque three-way toggle switch on the treble-side bout. Obviously, this one changes the active pickup selection from Bridge, to Bridge and Neck, and Neck alone. The thing that tends to get murky for folks is the switch located on the upper bass-side bout: the Rhythm Circuit.

The Rhythm Circuit was designed with the intention of giving the player a darker preset sound for rhythm play. A different array of pots (50K tone, 1M volume) lends to the darker sound, contrasting nicely with the Lead Circuit’s brighter personality. (1m for both) Roller knobs poke through slots on the guard that allow the player to easily change settings without much chance of settings being changed by vigorous play. Flip that switch to its ‘up’ position and you’ve got a rounder, bassier tone at the ready, one which I frequently utilize for a clean, somber tone or to mimic synth craziness with a big fuzz and an octave pedal. Even so, most players will choose to ignore this optional circuit as a nuisance or a design flaw, but do yourself a favor and play around with it! It’s great!

IMG_2687

L-R: ‘Strangle’ switch, Bridge Pickup, Neck Pickup. Simple.

The Jaguar, however, seems to be the guitar with the most problematic layout for some players, and while I can understand why it’s so intimidating, again I implore those stymied masses to have patience. Don’t let those little chrome plates get the best of you!

Thankfully for most, the upper bout switching is exactly the same as the Jazzmaster Rhythm Circuit. The three switches on the treble-side bout of the guitar control on/off for both pickups and what’s known as a “strangle switch”, a capacitor that can be engaged to bleed away bass frequencies, resulting in a thinned-out tone that’s perfect for biting leads or cutting rhythm work. Thanks to this, the Jaguar can easily be the most versatile guitar in a player’s arsenal.

If you’re still feeling vexed, check out the Interactive Jaguar instruction manual over at The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars.

We’ll continue shedding light on these amazing guitars in part 2, where we discuss the floating Bridge, from its intended design to tips on keeping it functioning properly even with heavy trem use. Stay tuned!

We also believe that we perform the best Offset setups in the Pacific Northwest. If your Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Electric XII, Mustang or Bass VI needs some help to sound and play its best, stop by Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar for a free consultation!

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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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Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards: Vinyl Record Pickguards for Your Instrument!

IMG_2925-imp

After lots of hard work and determination, we’re ready to officially announce Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards! These pickguards made from recycled vinyl records are produced entirely by hand in Seattle, WA and are made to fit many of the most popular guitar models: Fender Telecaster, Esquire, Telemaster, Nashville Tele, Mustang, Jaguar, Jag-Stang, Jazz Bass, G&L ASAT and ASAT Special, Gibson SG, Gretsch and pretty much any other guard that fits within the boundaries of a 12″ LP. Over the coming months we’ll be looking to add even more models to the party. Pretty snazzy, don’t you think?

We’re proud to offer these custom-fit replacement pickguards in three distinct collections:

IMG_2911-impAssorted – $45: Pre-cut, semi-random guards for popular models with a choice of overall label color to match your instrument. This series could include popular artists, not-so-popular ‘joke’ artists, self-hypnosis records, blooper reels, etc.*

Custom – $60: Custom-cut guards with full artist/album options (even soundtracks and off-the-beaten-path releases) as well as accommodation for non-standard pickup configuarations. We’ll send a list of options or you can make a request, which we’ll do our best to fill. These guards will also ship in their original album sleeve whenever possible!*

Premium – $75: All of the above in limited edition colored vinyl releases. Ships in original album sleeve!*

You’re also welcome to send us your own records for us to cut into the shape of your choosing!**

Each guard is hand-cut and lovingly shaped for a true-to-spec fit. Edges are sanded smooth, lightly beveled and polished to a 1950’s Bakelite sheen, and great care is taken to ensure a perfect, tight fit with all components. As an added bonus, we also laquer each label individually to ensure that it weathers even aggressive picking technique with aplomb. This also has the effect of making the label stand out a bit more, with a slight increase in hue saturation and contrast.

IMG_2950-impInterestingly enough, this is one of the only upgrades you can make to your guitar or bass that already has music in it. Each and every one of our Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards contains a purposely-recorded performance, a snapshot of the hard work, dedication and careers of living, breathing musicians who sought to make a life for themselves. Every guard is an archive of the human spirit!

It’s also immensely important to us that our product is environmentally conscious, so helping to recycle old, worn-out and discarded vinyl albums is a huge part of what we do. We search high and low for great materials, and we do our best to use only records that have a bad side or songs that won’t play. No sense wasting a perfectly good record!

Now you can play on your favorite record! Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards are the perfect addition to a well-loved instrument, adding a touch of mid-century class the moment it’s mounted. These guards can be found at Thunder Road Guitars in West Seattle, and on certain new Fastback Custom Guitars.

Interested in one of these fine accessories? Email us to get started!

Special thanks goes to all of those who have helped and encouraged us to pursue this little dream of ours: Charissa Adams, Chelsea Young, Dana and Vivian Huff, Alex Lathum, Chris Graffmiller, Michael Plotke, Scott Paul Johnson and Wallingford Guitars, Wesley William Wood and Rural Nyce Custom Guitars, Frank Gross and Thunder Road Guitars, Mark Naron and Fastback Custom Guitars.

IMG_3014-imp*There is an additional $10 fee for shielded guards. Please have Make and Model info ready when ordering.
**As can be expected, vinyl records tend to be fragile and it’s not uncommon for lighter-grade pieces to become damaged during the initial shaping and cutting process. While we take the greatest care in preparing our materials, this can’t always be avoided; it’s best to have a back-up choice when ordering.
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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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Scariest Music: Halloween 2012 Edition

Halloween always makes me hungry for scary things. Movies, video games, books, and creepy stories of my home town all come to mind along with the appetite for truly frightening fare. I look to the brilliant works of H.P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Silent Hill 2 & 3, Fatal Frame, Resident Evil 2 and Eternal Darkness to sate my desires, but what about music? Is there any truly frightening music out there? I mean, aside from the Beibers and Insane Clown Posses of our era.

I think so. In the spirit of the holiday, here are some of my favorites:

Zao’s Liberate Te Ex Inferis

Though the title of this album is grammatically incorrect, its rough English translation is “Save Yourself From Hell“, which is all I need to hear to get my blood moving. Like an omen for the would-be listener, artwork for the album was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and the track list is broken up into pairs named after the rings of hell: Limbo, The Lustful, The Gluttonous, The Hoarders and Spendthrifts, and The Wrathful.

Characterized by its metalcore sound, Zao was always known for its drop-tuned guitars, non-standard chord structures, and a love of dissonance. Gaunt, angular riffs and non-Euclidean chord progressions perfectly frame singer Dan Weyandt’s tortured vocals and cinematic lyrics pieced together from Apocalyptic foretellings and repurposed biblical imagery.

Part of what makes this particular record so effective is its roughly-hewn production; instead of the kind of tight, polished metal recordings we’re used to, this album takes on a decidedly loose feel. Whereas most producers might go for basketball kicks and software snares, the percussion here is full with a sense of space around them. The kick is low, muddy and dark, and cymbals seem to be coming from far off in the distance thanks to just the right amount of slapback echo. The guitars are pleasantly sludgy, mixing mammoth tones with those reminiscent of a Boss SD-1 through a buzzy 10″ practice amp to great effect.

Another piece of the horrorific puzzle here is the vocals. Dan Weyandt has, quite possibly, the most ghastly scream I’ve ever heard. It’s consistent, it’s demonic, and has an inhuman quality about it – it sounds as if it’s coming from a skinless nightmare beast rather than a long-haired, tattooed white dude. His is the kind of voice I would expect to hear from one of Lovecraft’s Elder Ones. Weyandt’s presentation here is everything, and so his howling, guttural yells are just low enough in the mix that even if you could understand him you’re not sure you’d want to.

When it comes to horror, subject matter is everything. You may not be surprised, then, to discover that Liberate was heavily inspired by the terrifying cult film Event Horizon. In the 1997 film, scientists created a starship capable of traveling great distances in an instant. Not quite traditional warp speed, the Event Horizon creates its own artificial black hole to fold space. No big deal, right? On its maiden voyage to Proxima Centauri the crew engages its “gravity drive” and disappears. Seven years later, it mysteriously reappears in a decaying orbit around Neptune with no contact or crew, and the viewer is lucky enough to be taken along for the ride to find out just what happened.

The film was poorly received when it came out, but has since gained cult status. Even though it has its flaws, that film is truly one of the most horrifying movies I have ever seen, and Zao deftly employ sound samples from the film to mate flesh to bone. The opening instrumental track of the record shambles along with its arms outstretched, before climaxing in a doomy storm of feedback and actor Sam Neil declaring “You know nothing. Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse.”

From that point on, the record is relentless in its thematic terror. Frenzied riffs and deranged 2/4 beats coagulate with demoralizing pop interludes and Weyandt’s singularly dark lyrics. The second song “Savannah” could just as easily be the DVD commentary for Event Horizon:

A day not to forget
The machine has collapsed under the program it’s been given
Look inside the broken shell
Look inside the broken shell
To see the broken heart
They can’t believe the machine was alive but we saw it bleed
We saw it bleed [8x]
The machine it falls apart and when it’s cut it bleeds
The machine bleeds [6x]
She was alive

I mean, my god! What a chilling way to open a record.

“Autopsy”, the very next track on the album, is the first instance of Zao’s effective use of decidedly un-metal sounds to further its unhinged moodiness. You may be aghast, questioning, “Tambourine? In my metal?” It’s better than you think. Really, hearing that tambourine treading through the verse sections of this song ups the creepy quotient of the album to a maddening degree, but then they do it again with the opening acoustic riffs of “If These Scars Could Speak”, a song like a seance or a ritualistic virgin sacrifice. At this point, I expect the dead to rise again.

“Ghost Psalm” just creeps me right the hell out, with repeated sections chanting “I am buried with your words” above a eerie dance-rock beat. Then there’s Dan Weyandt whispering in your ear, “Time to go one last look, one last touch. A ghost to those I love”, instantly sending shivers up my spine. I am now actively looking over my shoulder with the feeling that I’m being watched.

Where “Scars” makes even an acoustic guitar so foreboding and malevolent, “Skin Like Winter” (widely regarded as a signature Zao tune) opens with a menacing serial-killer riff and follows it up with gang clapping and the kind of drums you’d hear on an upbeat 1950s tune. Seriously, what other band do you know that can make hand claps so damn unnerving?

The album closes with “Man in Cage Jack Wilson”, a track that makes brutal use of samples from the movie, including the partial log recording that’s discovered in the Event Horizon’s computers, wherein we find the lost crew of the doomed ship engaged in a murderous blood orgy, mutilating one another while their minds short circuit, unable to comprehend the grim realities of where they’ve been.

As the album ends, I am in the fetal position, unable to move or speak, eyes wide with fright. And all of this from a Christian band…

Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi

Warbling and warping like a worn-out VHS tape, Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi is a truly unsettling masterpiece. With a flair for found sounds and obscure instrumentation, BOC’s compositions have more in common with 1970s educational films than they do with modern electronic music. Rife with distorted spoken word samples likely culled from old classroom reels, these songs give me the same feeling of dread that I get when I hear carnival music out of context. It’s sinister and brooding, with a twisting narrative full of childish nostalgia and quivering atmospherics. As if that weren’t enough, the song titles are vague occult references, and the total run time of the album is 66 minutes and 6 seconds. *shivers*

Geogaddi takes the listener on a dark journey from start to finish. The opening track “Ready Let’s Go” is the musical equivalent of watching celluloid film burn in front of a projector bulb, droning and pulsing as if BOC meant to waste no time melting away the layers of reality, leaving a rusty cage of dense sound in its place. The layering on this album is one of its greatest strengths, with amorphous beats plodding along beneath the eerie, haunting melodies and “the hell was that?!” instrumentation above. A constant feeling of psychological horror hangs over the whole record, as if you’re not really hearing what you’re hearing, like a phantom image in a daguerreotype.

The third track, “Beware the Friendly Stranger”, may be familiar to you if you’ve ever seen one of David Firth’s Salad Fingers videos, most of which feature this song on an endless loop beneath the titular character’s babbling insanity. This street monkey music box leads into the next track “Gyroscope”, a song that reassures my feeling of impending doom with the notion that I am being chased by something I cannot comprehend. I mean, this music really gets under my skin.

The entire album just gets darker and darker, as if it intends to tear apart your psyche before it gives you any hope of escape. The final tracks of this album (one entitled “You Could Feel the Sky”) bring a sense of closure to the rolling terror you’ve just come through. Even though you’re now breathing easy, in the back of your mind you know something’s not quite right as the album closes with “Magic Window” – nearly two minutes of silence. Do yourself a favor and listen with a great set of headphones to really get into the right mood.

If I ever get trapped in a decaying nightmare realm a la Silent Hill, this is the music I want following me as I solve puzzles and run from inexplicable horror.

John Cage’s Complete Piano Music Vol. 1

John Cage was a genius, we know that. His avant-garde compositions range in feel from a flurry of notes that mimic the sounds of traffic to no instrumentation at all. As a composer, Cage was more concerned with feeling and sound than strict melody and harmony, describing music as a “purposeless play” and an “affirmation of life” in that we make music as a way to realize that we are alive.

Cage studied under famed composer Arnold Schoenberg, who complained that Cage would always be going up against a brick wall without any sense of harmony. Cage devoted himself to beating his head against that wall, and the results are both minimalistic and intriguing.

John Cage loved plucking the strings of a piano just as much as most people enjoy playing in the conventional manner. This technique yields otherworldly textures and hammered tones that sound like the scampering of a small, precocious creature not of this earth. On this record you’ll hear steel drums and out of tune simultaneous tones from god knows what source, and seemingly atonal passages that seem right at home with the likes of today’s noise rock pioneers. If John Cage ever held a guitar, I’m certain he loved to pluck both behind and in front of the fretted note. He would likely have enjoyed ring modulators as well!

While his music isn’t necessarily scary on its own, it’s all about context. Around this time of year, innocent sounds can take on a special meaning that might not exist over the summer, for instance. If you’ve ever driven a long dirt road in the middle of a dark Pennsylvania night, just about any music is going to be disquieting. I know; I’m from there.

What really gets me about John Cage’s compositions though, is the perceived lack of logic or timing therein. Make no mistake: I’m aware that these compositions were well thought out, but would the casual listener call this music? It’s instinctively free form and disturbing in its shambling way, like a “walker” from The Walking Dead. Notes seem to flutter by loosely until they converge on the listener, embracing the chaos of a cluttered sonic mess before exhausting themselves and drawing back. It’s both cerebral and listless.

It’s not simply the notes he chose (or rather, threw like darts at the ear) but all of the other sounds in the recordings. There’s the shuffle of clothed arms, creaking of floorboards or the shifting bodies in the distance. Metal against metal, mallets barely missing the mark, percussive striking of piano keys and the very real mechanical sounds of instruments being played all lend to the ambiance.

Perhaps it’s not simply the notes that are there, but the notes that aren’t there. Cage was no stranger to silence, and it’s not uncommon for a track to wallow in extended periods of purposed quiet, where it seems like more is happening than you’re led to believe. In his well known work, 4’33”, Cage didn’t simply intend there to be no music, but to point out that the real music of life is actually the sounds that naturally occur around us all the time.

Side note: friends of mine recently attended a recital of the works of John Cage, and 4’33” was one of the titles chosen for performance. When the time came, a lady sitting close to my friends opened – get this – a giant bag of chips, happily crunching away. When I heard about this, I laughed my ass off, knowing that John Cage would have been proud. Some concertgoers did not get the joke, I’m told.

So, I’m not intending to tell you that John Cage is the scariest man alive, but what I am saying is that his music is so nuanced and off-kilter from the norm that it elicits such a strong reaction in the listener which, under the right conditions, could be more haunting than anything else on this list.

Silent Hill 3 Soundtrack

Speaking of Silent Hill, the soundtrack to the game franchise’s third installment is immensely terrifying in its own way. If you’ve never played any of these fantastic PS2 games, I highly recommend them for fans of psychological horror, especially games 2 and 3.

It may be an obvious move to call the soundtrack of a horror game “scary”, but there are reasons well beyond the simple connection of game to music. The soundtrack is moody and produced with a pop sheen, but what makes it memorable is its rickety back beats and off-kilter vocal performances.

It’s odd for a game about a girl that gets lost in a world of rusty fences and contorted monsters to have a soundtrack full of songs about love and distance, but it actually works well with the game’s read-between-the-lines imagery. Silent Hill is renowned for its character designs, with the ghoulish denizens you face created by the fears, neuroses and sexual hangups of Heather, the game’s protagonist. You come across frail zombie-like creatures with torsos encased in a bag of flesh, likely symbolic of the teenage heroine’s struggle with her own body image. Faceless nurses await you in the hospital, each of them with a slender body and an ample bosom, which can be interpreted as the insistence of the hourglass, 36/24/36 figure upon our culture’s young women. In fact, some of the first monsters you encounter are tall man-creatures with vaguely phallic heads and arms, a reflection on being a woman in a world that pushes masculine wants and desires. Not to spoil anything, but the most terrifying revelation in the game comes when, after having fought your way through hordes of blood-crazed beasts, you meet a character called Vincent who asks, “Monsters? They look like monsters to you?” He then says it’s a joke, but WTF?!

The sounds and songs of the SH3 collection is brooding and disorienting, with the sounds of a factory contorted into mechanical percussion. Tender melodies soothe while pulsing, distorted bass rumbles beneath, the punishing sound of implicit evil looming atmospherically in the background. You hear orchestral parts soaring while looped and cut beats crumble beneath your feet much like the collapsing streets of the game’s namesake town. Pitch-shifted cries and ring-modulated tones play a vicious game of hide and seek, there one moment and gone the next. And then there are the unashamedly “rock” songs on the album, “You’re Not Here” being the most obvious. Guitars careen and drums crack while the vocalist sings about being “…strung out, addicted to you”. Even with a song like that, the sense of foreboding is in full force because the sounds you’re hearing aren’t quite right.

A good example of this can be found just about anywhere you hear vocals. For one thing, the voices on this soundtrack are almost too produced, impossibly clean and pitch-perfect. As for what they’re singing, most of the lyrics were originally written in Japanese, then translated into English with little regard for syntax or lyrical flow it would seem. It’s not that they’re bad or poorly-written lyrics at all, but they’re just, well, ‘almost there’; That’s what makes them so creepy.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: “Letter – From the Lost Days” is a song that assuredly was translated but retains an inherent vibe of nostalgia. Vocalist Melissa Williamson – who honestly has a beautiful voice – sings the story of a girl writing a letter to her future self, pleading with her older self to be happy and remember “Daddy” and “Colleen” instead of some unaddressed misfortune that happened to the girl. The song ends with multiple repetitions of the phrase, “We were put here on this earth, put here to feel joy”, the last of which is whispered sinisterly.

There are a few spoken word pieces here that are equally discordant, with the same slightly off delivery that makes them so piercing:

The world is teeming with unnecessary people
It is God’s decision that I fight
As knight of honor, as a protector of the seal
I sacrifice myself to the blood of criminals

Nah, that’s totally legit. Nothing scary there.

The rest of the record is filled with the sounds of droning monk chants, the marching of giants, and in the case of “Flower Crown of Poppy”, what is presumably the machine that they used to challenge track layin’ American folk hero John Henry. The closing tracks of the album don’t really give any sense of comfort or release from the grip of sheer terror, with the following lovely little prose poem to remind you that the way cults like the one in the game are so effective: they take seemingly innocuous religious things people have heard before, but they offer them with a twist.

In the beginning people had nothing,
Their bodies ached and their hearts held nothing but hatred.
They fought endlessly but death never came
They despaired stuck in the eternal quagmire

A man offered a serpent to the sun,
And prayed for salvation.
A woman offered a reed to the sun,
And asked for joy.
Feeling pity for the sadness that had overrun the earth
God was born from those two people.

God made time and divided it into day and night.
God outlined the road to salvation and gave people joy.
And God took endless time away from the people.
God created beings to lead people in obedience to her.

The red God Xuchilbara
The yellow God Lobsel Vith
Many Gods and Angels
Finally God set out to create paradise,
Where people would be happy just by being there.

But there God’s strength ran out and she collapsed
All the world’s people grieved this unfortunate event
Yet God breathed her last,
She returned to the dust promising to come again.

So God hasn’t been lost,
We must offer her prayers and not forget our faith.
We wait in hope for the day…
When the path to paradise will be opened.

Awesome. I’m so scared that I’m involuntarily crysturbating. Happy, Akira Yamaoka? Actually, you probably are, you sick freak! (Kidding. Well done, sir!)

The penultimate track is completely wack, though. It has possibly the most ridiculous lyrics in the known universe, and the delivery of said lyrics breaks with established tradition by also being incredibly ridiculous. The songs’s “She’s gooooooooone” lyric rivals the absurdity of Darth Vader’s insipid “NOOOOOOO!” in Revenge of the Sith. Listen to this track once for teh lulz, then delete it. You’ll be glad you did. Also, the very last one is alright, but starts with a eye-rollingly awkward, “Okay, let’s do this. One, two, three, four.”

Ugh.

Any Carnival Music, Ever

I mean, that shit is frightening.

-Michael James Adams

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