Greetings fellow gear-heads (and non-gear-heads who will make it through 1 or 2 paragraphs and then give up)! There have been a number of significant changes to my rig since I last posted such that I believed an update was warranted. Most of the more significant changes were made during tour preproduction last winter, with a few small tweaks made thereafter. [Note: the following photos were hastily taken this past weekend at Austin City Limits right before our set, please excuse the god-awful lighting]
Perhaps the most significant change on my side of the stage, in terms of input list, has been the addition of a dedicated bass line. Previously Sam and I had shared a bass (and signal chain for said bass) but in an effort to expand the sonic palette, and further dial in timbres for a growing setlist, splitting things up seemed practical. As far as the instrument itself is concerned Fender was kind enough to send me one of their Elite Series 5-strings and it’s all I’ve used since receiving it. Fundamentally I prefer playing a 4-string over extended-range basses but one of the new songs we’ve been performing this past year (“Happy Home”) absolutely demands a 5-string and I got sick of half-ass-ing it on a 4.
I think Fender did an excellent job in designing this bass. My biggest issue with 5-strings (and I’ve owned many) is that the tension of the low-B tends to be inadequate. The result is uneven attack throughout the instrument because the B-string isn’t recovering (as in snapping back to strings resting position) as quickly as the higher-pitched strings do. A low level of tension also has the tendency to lead to poor intonation because the player can easily send the pitch sharp by inadvertently bending the string. Since extended range basses came into vogue sometime in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s bass makers have attempted to rectify this issue by playing with scale length. Ibanez, Specter, Warwick, Lakland and others have all experimented with 34” scale on their 4-strings and 35” scales on their 5-strings. I owned a 35” scale Ibanez 5-string 10 years ago and it was awful. The tension on the B-string was perfect but the tension on the G-string was way too taut. It’s worth mentioning that scale length undoubtably has a huge impact on the timbre of an instrument. Compare the frequency distribution of a Fender bass (typically 34”) verse a Gibson bass (often 30.5”) and the differences become blatantly obvious. There is an argument to be made for 35” scale basses demonstrating a marginally more natural presentation of lower frequencies than their 34” counterparts, but general playability trumps a minute improvement in resonance in most situations for me. That all said, instead of messing with scale length on their Elite Series basses Fender has helped alleviate the age-old 5-string problem by simply adding a dedicated B-string string-tree. Personally I think it did the trick.
In terms of onboard controls I run the bass exclusively in passive mode (there’s a toggle for active and passive) with the volume at max, both pickups full-on and the tone control all the way up. The only time I’ll mess with any onboard settings during the set is for “Joyful” when I’ll usually roll the tone knob back to 3/4’s or so. The strings are DR Hi-Beam Stainless Steel Round Core 45-125. I think I last changed them in April; it’s probably about time.
I use a shared 1/4” for both acoustic (which I only use on “Ahead of Myself”) and bass. The cable hits a TC Electronic PolyTune before going to an Old Blood Noise Endeavors ABY box. Doing things this way saves space in addition to avoiding the potential confusion of having three patch cables in front of me during guitar changes. [Note: those of you who have read my previous posts know my distaste for wireless systems, hence the cableage] From there the acoustic signal hits a Keeley Compressor Pro which I have knocking off 1-3db with the soft-knee and auto function engaged (which overrides both attack and release times). The acoustic signal then gets preamped by a custom DI box made by Midnight 30 which models a Boss FA-1; a unit made popular by The Edge in the early 80s. The bass signal-path goes from the ABY box to an Empress Compressor that’s always doing 4-6db of gain reduction with a medium attack and fairly quick release. The great thing about the Empress comp is that it has a parallel control which I have set to approximately half compressed signal and half dry. After that the bass goes through a Deluxe Big Muff which I’ll occasionally use for dirt during interludes followed by a Darkglass Vintage (V1) pre/overdrive pedal. The preamp function of the Darkglass is always engaged; the overdrive function I only use for the gritty bass sound in “Don’t Stay”. The last component of the bass chain is an Avalon U5 DI. I was first turned onto the idea of using an Avalon on-stage when playing through Nate Edgar’s rig while opening for John Brown’s Body during my Rubblebucket days many years ago. He got the most incredible sound out of simply running a U5 into a massive Crown power-amp.
My main guitar as of late has been a Reverend Reeves Gabrels Spacehawk. It’s truly the only Bigsby-equipped guitar I’ve ever played that more-or-less always stays in tune no matter what abuse you put it through. I’ve ranted about this before but the flaw with most Gibson headstock designs is that the break angle of the D and G strings with a 3+3 tuning machine configuration is so extreme that it inherently creates kinking at the nut. Regardless of what the nut material is or how well one lubricates it there’s always going to be some issue. Revered employs a 24.75” (Gibson-esque) scale length with a (Fender-like) straight-6 tuning machine configuration. It’s the best of both world, in my opinion. On top of that the Spacehawk has a kill-toggle, ebony fingerboard, a push-pull for true out-of-phase tones and a high-pass filter (think ‘tone control for the low end’). You can see in the photo below that I’ve taped down the HP knob (which Reverend calls a “bass contour”). I did so because, compared to my other touring guitars, the low-frequency output of the guitar was just a bit too hot and it was giving my clean tone a smidgen too much breakup. Right now I have it rolled off a quarter-turn.
In addition to the Spacehawk and the 2016 SG I’ve had on the road for a couple years I’ve also been touring with a partscaster I bought from Gruber Guitar in Fargo, ND a while back. It’s a 1990 Fender Telecaster body with a more recently produced Allparts neck. It was sold to me with a strat pickup in the neck position and a standard tele pickup in the bridge but I ultimately swapped them out for a set by Curtis Novak, including his standard-humbucker-sized Wide Range copy in the neck position. To say the guitar is a beast is an understatement. It’s without a doubt the greatest Tele I’ve owned. The neck is nice and chunky and the variety of tones one can coerce out of the instrument is extremely varied. To allow the humbucker to speak I installed 500k pots but the result was the bridge pickup was screaming’ bright. To solve the problem I ultimately added a resistor in the bridge pickup signal-path so that it was essentially seeing 250k. The original bridge (with individual saddles, which I loath) was swapped out for a Wilkinson brass-saddle bridge and I added a Fender decal (found on Etsy) after the original Gruber decal feel off.
There have been quite a few pedal updates though the core of the board has remained the same. The number of shows I’ve played with the Boss volume pedal (which I’m riding constantly), Walrus Voyager, Big Ear Woodcutter, Boss DD-6 and MXR Sub Machine without issue is staggering. Kudos to those companies for building rock solid products. As you can see my Kemper controller is no longer on the board. Instead it now lives on the stage itself, to the left of this board, during performance. The bass/acoustic board lives to my right. I absolutely love the Kemper but found that I really prefer utilizing it as a clean platform for using stompboxes. I still do all of my big delays and reverbs via the Kemper but, for the time being at least, I’m gonna stick to pedals for drives, compression and mono time-based effects.
One effect that, try as I might, I can’t get the Kemper to nail the way a stompbox can is phaser. I had previously used a T. Rex Tonebug phaser but grew frustrated with it’s lack of ability apply make-up gain to the effected signal. I picked up a MXR Phase 95 from Haight Ashbury Music Center while walking around San Fransisco this past spring and swapped out the T. Rex. It made a dramatic improvement. Some folks knock MXR. I’m not sure why. Maybe because their effects are so pervasive and in-turn deemed less extraordinary? I would submit that BECAUSE their effects are so extraordinary they’ve become so pervasive.
Other changes include the addition of a TC Electronic Bona Fide buffer after my volume pedal and a Whirlwind Ross-style compressor with the output dimed and the ‘sustain’ control turned all the way down. The comp I’ve been using for the intro and bulk of “Renegades” and all of “Recover”. Because the compressor comes after the Voyager (and because the Voyager is lifting the signal so much) raising the ‘sustain’ on the compressor above where it is now would equal way too much squash. The signal path might be difficult to discern here, for clarity it’s: PolyTune>CryBaby>Voyager (set: volume slightly above noon, treble slightly above noon and gain at 9 o’clock)>Sub Machine>compressor, etc. Lots of folks have strong opinions about pedal order when it comes to wah and fuzz but I never use them at the same time with X Ambassadors so for now I’m gonna abstain from getting involved in that argument.
My old faithful OCD has been taken off the board and replaced with perhaps my favorite drive pedal of all time: the Earthquaker Devices Palisades. The jacks on the OCD were getting a little wonky and it had already been repaired by Fulltone once. Instead of buying a newer version OCD (which I think sound like crap) or spending big bucks on an older one I decided to reserve the OCD for studio purposes and exchange it for the (incredibly malleable) Palisades. My only complaint with the Palisades is that you can’t use each gain stage independently. I really wish I could use the boost (which is almost TOO powerful) by itself. Nonetheless, the clipping (‘Voice”) and EQ (“Bandwidth”) options on the pedal are unreal. If my memory serves me correctly I have the “Voice” is set to 4 (which is asymmetrical silicon clipping) and the “Bandwidth” set to 3 or 4. I mostly use the pedal on gain setting ‘B’ with the exception of the power-chords I do after the second chorus of “Unsteady” when I toggle to gain ‘A’ (which is a bit more mellow). It’s a less-is-more moment in my opinion where a lower-gain setting (with less compression and more transients) sounds significantly bigger than a more saturated guitar sound. I’m not the biggest AC/DC fan but “Back in Black” is a great example of a classic guitar sound that is way less distorted than most people think it is. Go into any Guitar Center and you’ll hear kids playing the riff with loaaaaads of distortion; the result is a super puny sound. Playing with less overdrive, or distortion, than one thinks a part might demand takes restraint but it often yields the best results. To go ahead and pivot 180 degrees from that point, the “Unsteady” solo after those power-chords is done with gain ‘b’ engaged on the Palisades plus the Woodcutter added on top. [Facepalm]
Last but not least I added two great pedals by Keeley: the Memphis Sun and Caverns. The Memphis Sun I have set to a short slap-back (maybe around 70ms) with only a single repeat plus adding just a tiny bit of reverb. It really beefs up an exposed guitar and helps push the front-end of an amp (or in my case simulated-amp). I have the Memphis Sun on for the entirety of “Low Life” and all of both “Gorgeous” and “Renegades”, with the exception of the solos in each song. Caverns is a great dual purpose reverb and delay pedal that I use in an improvisatory way; sometimes I’ll use it often throughout the set, other nights I might only use it on one song. It’s probably the only pedal I use that way, whereas the rest of my pedal changes are clearly delineated and static from night to night. While the delays I use on the Kemper are mostly stereo and more high-fi (with the tempo tapped in for each song) the delay setting I have dialed in on the Caverns is mono and darker (with a fixed tempo).