Time to talk gear...
From an Interview Rob Gainey of "How To Rock Your Stage Sound" with me.
“It’s easy to be in the Top 10 when there are only 9 fretless guitar players in the world, lol!”
TONE: With a million and five guitarists in the world, choosing to play fretless was a great “foot in the door” if nothing else. It allows me to do things that would be impossible on fretted guitars. While essentially your right hand plays the same way and the strings are still spaced and tuned the same way, the biggest dif- ference lies in the way you use your left hand. It’s in charge of the pitch and it gets dicey at times, especially up the neck. You also have to really work the string to get some sustain by using your fingernail on the plain strings. Without using your fingernail, you’ll need to use more gain and compression to get some sustain out of the note, otherwise it just goes “bink”, lol! Most fretless guitars have the fret markers on the side and they mark the frets; fretted guitars have the markers between the frets. I can get all the exaggerated vibrato of a slide player without using a slide, all the long pitch bends and in-between notes as well. I can bend parts of chords; maybe two or three notes at a time, but trying get a full chord is messy. I like to stay away from 4th’s and 5th’s because they are the most difficult to keep on pitch.
In a good guitar, I look for something that will stay in tune for three sets without having to tune up every song. I hate the sound of Humbuckers, but I can’t always deal with the noise of a single coil. If I can keep my single coils under control, then it’s my first choice; otherwise I have to use Humbuckers! I’ve tried some of the noiseless single coils, but haven’t found one that actually sounds like a single coil pickup. Another thing I’ve found and people think I’m nuts for saying is that 60 Hertz is almost a B flat and if I tune down a half step, it sounds like a sympathetic note under the note I’m playing! I just don’t want to hear it when I stop play- ing!
I use many of the same effects that most players do: delays, distortion, wah, volume and occasionally
a ring modulator. I also use an octave pedal for a lot of solos. I couldn’t live without a volume pedal, but I still use the volume control on my guitar. I use the distortion pedal in front of the volume pedal so I can control the level without losing sustain and remove the noise it produces. I use the guitar volume to regulate my gain levels and the volume pedal to control my volume, like a master volume. I run overdrives, phase shifters and flanges in front of the amp and run my verbs and chorus in the effects loop of the amp. No matter how I set things up, the gain is always before the delay.
I had about 20 amps, but got tired of paying for a storage space for stuff I hadn’t seen in a year, so I
sold everything but my THD’s, some old Marshalls and Fenders and my rack stuff. What I take out depends on the gig; always use the right tools! A lot of times, my amp is set for clean and most of the changes come from my pedals; the amp is there to give it the warmth and tone to the overall sound. I’ve had people tell me they want something that sounds like and old Marshall and then ask me what amp they should buy....DUH! They just answered their own question! Sure, you going to have to change some filter caps, maybe some grid screen resis- tors, but if you want the sound of a vintage amp; BUY A VINTAGE AMP. You’ll probably spend less money getting it sound like you want than if you bought something else and tried to make it sound like an old amp!
When doing work for THD, the boss has a vastly different ap- proach to guitar than I, so when we’re both happy with a design, it’s usually something special that will work for everyone. I’m not a fan of 10” speakers; they just don’t move enough air for my tastes. I prefer the sound of 12” speakers for guitar. We built a pair of 9-12” cabinets for Keith Richards and they were just insanely huge! Three rows high and three speakers wide....for each cabinet! We called to ask him how they sounded and he said “Like crap!”, so we told him to keep them, lol!
I’m surprised at how little most people understand about impedance; two 16-ohm cabinets don’t make 16 ohms and yet people still set their amps for 16 ohms! And if you have mismatched cabinets like a 16 ohm cab and an 8 ohm cabinet run together, you want to run your amp at 4 ohms because the two cabinets together make a 5.3 ohm load. You can’t set it for 8 or 16! While both cabs still run at their rated impedance (the 8 ohm cabinet will be louder!), the two speakers together make the load even lower than the 8 ohm cabinet. One of the most common mistakes made by tube amp users is to switch the impedance of an amp while someone is playing through it. STOP...put it on standby and THEN switch the impedance!!! It’s like throwing your car in the wrong gear without a clutch while you’re driving it!
Cables in general are a whole BOX of worms: not just a can! I believe there’s some directionality to in-strument cables in general. Not so much that one direction is better than the other, but there is a difference from one end to the other. Any conductor will develop a “groove” in it if you run the same track over and over; it will tend to acquire certain characteristics. The cable will adapt to any signal you send it. Record your guitar and then swap the ends and record that: there will be an audible difference. Same thing with speakers: if you wire them across the positive phase, record them and then wire them across the negative phase, you will hear a difference as well. The speakers will sound different because they are moving in the opposite direction from the other wiring. You may not be able to tell the difference without a comparison, but you can hear the A/B’d difference! While I’ve never tried reversing the speaker cables to listen, everything else I’ve listened to has had a discernable difference.
Some of the really high-end cables sound fantastic and everything makes a difference. If you have a shot of Tequila, or stand two feet to the right, it will sound different! Everything you do in audio makes a difference; the first question is “How much?” and the even bigger question is “Do really you care?” If you spend your life sitting in front of amp working on your sound trying to get another 3% and forget to practice, what’s the point? Many times, that extra 3% won’t be noticed in a live show anyway! I use solid-core speaker cables, but I often break them; I’m not the neatest guy when it comes to packing up my gear, but I think that solid core carries the top end better than stranded cables. If you have an amp that is really bright, this might not be the cable you want to use. Matter of fact, I would probably use the crappiest cable I could find to tone down some of those frequencies with a bright-sounding amp.
It seems that guitarists have always been rather conservative with their setups and very little has changed over the years; tube, amps, pickups, guitar construction and strings have remained relatively un- changed over the last 50 years. Who knows? Maybe that spiral cable that Jimi Hendrix used helped give him that tone, lol!
Andy at THD designs his amps to keep the overtones in phase so you don’t have a smear in the harmon- ics. If you mute the bridge and do hammer-ons, you’re gonna have a defined tone instead of as mushy mess. I think this is one of the attributes that sets THD apart. So many amps have such a haze of overtones where it’s just a weird wash of frequencies, not really squared out, but more like a halo around the tone. On the other hand, an amp like a Vox AC30 will have ghost frequencies like crazy, or an old Marshall Super Lead will cre- ate almost ring modulator-frequencies when bending notes above the 12th fret! Things like this can be cool when used sparingly, but I wouldn’t want that all the time.
You’ll know when to change your preamp tubes when they get microphonic, but power tubes will get saggy and eventually start dropping significantly in level. I’ve had some go for 7-8 years before I absolutely had to change them, but every amp is different. Many people bias their amps way too hot; perhaps they’ve heard that under-biasing them creates crossover distortion. If you bias your tubes hot and play at bedroom volume, you’ll be ok...until you take that amp out and try to run it at stage volumes; you’re gonna blow a fuse! Other than obvious problems like a cracked tube or a bright red glow (red-plating), which could indicate an overbias or failing tube, it’s difficult to tell when a tube is bad from a visual perspective. Voltages can change from place to place; sometimes as much as 15 volts either way, so what may be just right at one place may be too hot at another. This is one of the problems with running a hot bias on an amp.
Selecting the right tube for an amp depends a lot on the amp; you have try different varieties to see what sounds best. Years ago, I would have told you that EL-34’s were the best tube for an old Marshall, but one of mine sounds best with 5881’s (6L6’s) in it. The bottom end really tightens up in that amp! I like the bottom on 6550’s, KT66’s & KT88’s, but not in a regular push-pull amp like an old Marshall or Fender; you have to drive them like crazy to get them to break up. My favorites of the KT series are the 90’s and 100’s. But if you like power tube distortion, these wouldn’t be my first choice. My observation has been that the smaller the bottle (tube), the more it breaks up; the bigger the bottle, the tighter the bottom end. I’m not a big fan of current production tubes, but there are a few that sound pretty good. SED 6550’s, current production Chinese EL34’s and 6L6’s are some of the best new tubes, but I would prefer to buy old stock Amperex and Siemens tubes from eBay. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get good tubes, if you know what you want.
SETTING UP: For some reason, I always wind up on stage right; I like stage left, but bass players were always fighting me for that side, lol! Besides, the older I get, the further I like to be away from the cymbals anyway; something about not losing my hearing really appeals to me... I like to have my cabinet behind the drummer, but mainly so he can hear me. I don’t put much faith in monitors anyway, so this fixed the prob- lem right off the bat. My comfort level goes down anytime that I’m further than 10 feet from my amp. In one of my bands, I had a 2-12 cabinet set up next to my floor monitor on the bigger stages so I could hear myself as well I wanted and not blow everyone else away; sound guys loved it because it didn’t bleed off the stage. Mesa Boogie has made a wedge guitar cabinet for years; even Jeff Beck has Vintage 30’s in his monitors!
Ideally, you should be able to hear the instrumentation that happens onstage without a single moni- tor. If you can’t hear yourself, change your position. If you can’t hear someone else, there’s something wrong with the levels onstage. On a bigger stage, sure you’re going to need some balancing in the monitors; for smaller stages, vocals only.
There are so many guitar players online discussing the finer points of tone, but they’d better off learning how to play instead! I’ve heard all the talk about digital modeling amps not sounding like “the amp in a room”, but the very concept of that thought is flawed: how many times do you get up onstage and get your amp to sound like it’s “in a room”? The audience is only hearing the amp through a mic, so what all the fuss about? There’s so much going on in a mix, who could ever pick that sound out? I think that one of the reasons that so many guitarists turn up too loud is because they have so much top and bottom on their tone. The cymbals and kick drum are going bury a guitar tone like that; put some mids in your sound if you want to hear it. Fix your Eq!
MONITORS: In a perfect world, I should only need to have vocals in the monitors. However, for most stages I want to hear kick, snare, hi-hat, bass and some guitar in the monitors. I don’t really need vocals; if I can’t cue off the drums, why would the vocals help me? One of my drummers couldn’t play without the vocals; he couldn’t find the next section without hearing the lyrics. If he had vocals, he never missed a section! Ideally, no follows anyone; time should be a communal effort. That being said, I have a tendency to take the corners a little wide, so I cue off the drummer to reign myself in sometimes, lol!
Generally, I’ll keep my monitors away from the singer as far as I can so that I can run them as loud as I need to. Since I’m not a vocalist, I don’t have the interaction problems with a vocal mic to worry about feeding back. On the smaller crappy monitors, you’re not going to get much bass and kick, but you should be able to hear plenty of snare and hi-hat.
I’ve had In-Ear monitors for years; I like the concept of them, but I hate the sound of them. I usually end up using just one, because it feels weird hearing everything without some ambience. If you move around on a stage, you’ll get used to the time delay from the source to your ears and you know how to respond to it, but with In-Ears, there’s no delay and it throws my timing off.
INPUTS: I don’t make a big deal over my effects cables; whatever is lying around and isn’t broken gets used. The FAA broke me of worrying about this since they just ran through my stuff, half were unplugged and the other half got messed up when they closed the case on them, lol! Power cables and all! I used to have a neat setup with everything tied down, but this changed after flying in to gigs. Now, I just carry a bunch of loose cables that I can change out whenever I need to.
Depending on the gig, I’ll sometime use an Axe-FX, which is like a POD on steroids. Originally, I got it just for the effects in it, but the amp modeling is pretty damn good! Occasionally, I’ll use this as my fly-rig and plug it straight in the front-end of a backline amp. It’s a 2-space rack-mount unit and I use their midi control- ler to go through the patches. Typically, I’ll keep one amp model throughout the patches and switch in varia- tions of the sound I’m using. I don’t try to use a bunch of different amp sounds, I just use it like a pedalboard; adding/removing effects rather than completely changing guitar tones. I also have graphic Eqs that I use more for volume than for tone; however it does allow me to adjust the tone of the volume boost. I use one in the front for more drive and one on the backend for a solo boost. For acoustic, I’ll use a Taylor T-5 or anything with a Fishman Aura system; that system is one I know I can plug into the monitors and always get a great sound. I use a TC Polytune, volume pedal and effects before I go to the DI with my signal. I don’t use a stage amp, but I may use a small multi-effects unit so can get some compression, Eq and a little bit of reverb in my sound; this allows me to have some control over my tone in the monitors.
I’ve noticed other players who haven’t balanced their patches properly and run from serious Eq differ- ences to the most common problem; mismatched volumes! They’ll go from a distorted patch that you can hard- ly hear to a clean sound that takes your head off, lol!!! I’ve heard so many people complain about soundguys; “that soundguy doesn’t know what he’s doing”, but the truth is that they have no idea what their amp REALLY sounds like with a mic in front of it. You need to be able to get your amp to sound good with an SM57. That means the right amp, the right cabinet and the right speakers. Most people hear their amp from a distance or off to the side, but that’s not where the mic is! Go put your ear where the speaker is and you’ll find out what it really sounds like. If you can make it sound good there, it’ll sound great with a mic in front of it. Work your Eq if you have to.
While I often wind up with an SM57 in front of guitar cabinet, my new favorite is one of the Heil mics, not quite sure which model. My go-to mic when I record is a Sennheiser E609 or E906; is a flat (side address) mic I can hang off my cabinet and not have to worry about using a stand. I like it right on the grill and used
to take the grillcloth off so I could get it right in the dustcap of the speaker on the seam where it turns to cone.
I don’t care for my mic at an angle; it sounds like a comb filter to me. When I go head-on to the speaker, I know what I’m going to get. My choice of speaker for miking is a Vintage 30; I know I can throw a mic any- where in the vicinity and get a useable signal. I’m looking for as much top-end as I can get without using Eq and without being piercing. Everything else, I have to put on the headphones and listen for where the hiss is the loudest: that’s where the mic goes. I like to have the hi-pass filter on the channel to take out anything below 100 Hz; there’s nothing in my guitar sound that needs to be there. This eliminates that “whoompf” sound from your hand muting the strings. If I’m doing a lot of staccato picking with the back of my hand muting the strings, you’ll hear the scrubbing in your sound if you don’t engage the hi-pass and I can do without all that, lol!
ORGANIZING: For more recent bands where I’m still getting used to the show, I’ll keep up with the guitar I’m using, the tuning for it, the song key and a note of who starts off the song; all of this is marked on my setlist. For bands I know really well, I’ll just keep a setlist with song abbreviations on it. For flydates, we send out backline sheets with our technical rider, but you need to be prepared for not getting what you want, so make sure you have an option or two! As long as I have something loud and clean, I’m usually good with my pedal board and guitars.
My iPhone and laptop are synced up together, so I generally have access to any info I need when I’m out on the road. I’d suggest you keep up with the serial numbers of your equipment; years ago I had my house broken into and 9 guitars stolen. I didn’t have my serial numbers written down and while I was lucky to have gotten them all back, I wouldn’t expect this to happen everytime! While there are a few programs out there that will help you keep up with band and show info, you really don’t need them if you have a computer and a
SOUNDCHECKING: For soundcheck, the first thing I do is setup and make sure that my rig is working correctly. I don’t generally need much time to get dialed in because I’m mostly self-sufficient onstage. When I set up and play my first 3 chords, I have an idea of what I may have to do to my sound, but I can always fix my tone on the fly. My least favorite is an outdoor gig across from a brick wall; that nasty slapback (ever-so- slightly out of time) is a nightmare to deal with, lol! Boomy stages aren’t so much a problem for me because I’m not running that much low-end, but it does seem to be a problem for bass players and the stage can sound like a huge bass trap! Depending on the size of the stage, I may angle my cabinet towards the inside so the drummer can get more of my sound when I’m set up further away. I’m willing to do what needs to be done to not have to rely so much on the stage monitors.
With Nathan Chance, we sound-checked 3 songs because we had two singers: one song with one singer, one song with the other and a song with both. We just played all the way through and it was more about get- ting the vocals right because the band wasn’t using that much in the wedges anyway. I know we’ve got a good soundcheck when two things happen: 1- The band plays well, lol! And 2- No one is complaining about not hear- ing themselves!
The room always seems to sound better when it fills up, so I don’t fuss over the mix too much at soundcheck. I just know what I need to play well.
I’ve played a number shows with a lot of bands on the billing and some guys have no concept of change- over and take their time getting offstage. I’ve never understood why it would take a band more than 8 minutes to clear a stage, but it happens more than you think! Get your stuff off the stage and THEN you can social- ize!