Somehow it's been almost a year since I last posted here. I seriously need to stay more on top of this. Anyhow, for the geeks out there who might be interested to know exactly what I use on stage with X Ambassadors I figured I'd dish.
As far as guitars go I mostly play Gibson SG Standards with the exception of the Fender Elite Telecaster that I have with me when we have the luxury of touring with the bus and the rest of our equipment. It was my '03 SG (pictured above at Lollapalooza last weekend) that I started using when I initially came on with the band and I've found that it's the sound of that guitar that really suits most of the band's material. If I have to have just one guitar with me it's gonna be that one. It's got a fat sound that's still able to cut through the mix when I need it too and I find it feeds-back in a very musical way. For a while I would play the SG for the entire set with the exception of "Low Life", which requires having a whammy during the verses. For that song I would pick up a Strat but I grew frustrated with the fact that the output of the Strat's single coils didn't hit my pedals and the front-end of the amplifier with the same oomph as the SG's humbuckers. The sound was thin and I ultimately opted to add a Bigsby system (via a Vibramate plate) to the SG so I didn't ever have to switch. Other than the Bisby the '03 is totally stock.
If you're thinking about adding a Bigsby to one of your guitars I would encourage you to look into using a Vibramate in lieu of drilling new holes in the body; I now swear by them. Mark Davis at First Strike Custom down in Florida is the man to turn to for guitar hardware and whom I've been sourcing parts from lately. Nobody knows tuning machines, bridges, tremolo assemblies and the like better than he does. It was Mark who convinced me to add a bridge with roller saddles when putting the Bisby on the guitar and I think it allows me to stay more in-tune and keeps me from breaking strings on stage. I'm pretty anal about tuning and consequently always hard-tailed my guitars with tremolo systems. The roller bridge allows me to just focus on playing and I've been super happy with having the Bigsby as a new tool on stage.
My backup SG, and the one I use for fly dates (which has been the majority of the shoes we've done in the past couple months), has been a '16 SG Standard Traditional (none of that automatic tuner BS). My '03 SG has too much sentimental value to me and I've seen what TSA can do to instruments. I had been flying with just my Tele but was missing the feel of an SG. I called Sweetwater while we were on the West Coast in the spring and had them overnight me a new one right before we did BottleRock and Sasquatch festivals. I figured I might as well have a spare anyway and I didn't feel like troubling anyone back in NY to pack up and ship me my older one. In hindsight I should have just stuck with the Tele for the time being or searched Craigslist for an SG from the early 2000s because the feel of the '16 is nothing like my '03. The neck profiles are pretty different and the timbres aren't exactly the same. Additionally, I probably won't be buying another new Gibson anytime soon because I'm now convinced that their quality control has totally gone down the drain. In a matter of days the plastic truss-rod cover cracked, one of the tuning machines started to slip and I found the output of the pickups to be pretty uneven. I debated with the idea of sending it back to Sweetwater (who has amazing customer service) but ultimately decided to just roll with it. I appointed the guitar with the same Vibramate, Bigsby and roller-bridge as the '03 and I also swapped out the wonky stock tuners for Kluson Revolution locking tuning machines, which have a really great feel and a 19:1 ratio. Both SG's are strung with standard D'Addario EXL115 (11-49) and I try to get two or three wraps around the tuning machines for each string when putting them on; more contact = more sustain/resonance by my logic.
The '15 Elite Tele I have is light-years better than other Tele's I've owned (and I've owned a few). I really like the S1 switching that Fender has incorporated in the design, which allows you to run the two pickups in parallel or series when in the middle position of the pickup selector. Via said switch (on the volume pot) you can dial in more traditional Tele sounds as well as humbucker-like tones. Other Tele's I've owned have always felt primitive and clunky to me but I appreciate the contemporary appointments on this guitar and the Strat-like body cut helps make it feel more like an extension of myself rather than just a cumbersome plank of wood (as other Tele's often do in my hands). I string this guitar with DR Tite-Fit 10's (10-46); for some reason they just feel slinkier (in a good way) to me than D'Addario 10's or 11's with the longer scale-length. As a note: I was always pretty skeptical of noiseless pickups but the new generation of noiseless that Fender has developed are killer; I don't feel like any character is lost. I'm also a fan of the bound bodies and the redesigned truss-rod adjustment point. Please just put me out of my misery if I have to take the neck off another older Fender to tweak the truss-rod.
Pedals, Pedalboard and Amp
Current signal chain...
Boss TU-2 tuner > Walrus Audio Voyager Preamp > MXR Sub Machine Fuzz > Walrus Audio Contraband Fuzz > Big Ear NYC Woodcutter Distortion > Fulltone OCD Overdrive > Earthquaker Devices Palisades Overdrive > Boss DD-6 Delay > Dunlop Wah > Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal > Eventide SPACE Reverb > Electro-Harmonix Soul Food > Seymour Duncan Vapor Trail Analog Delay > T-Rex Tonebug Phaser > Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Star Pad Reverb
The board itself is a standard PedalTrain Pro but kept in a custom flight case made by Encore A&S out in California. They also made my SG flight case. Both are much lighter, and considerably more durable, than the standard cases for both items. The board is powered by two VooDoo Labs Pedal Power 2 units which are mounted to the underside of the board. When you have that many pedals going I feel like having isolated circuits for them individually is the way to go over the On-Spot daisy-chain style power supply.
All my pedals are taped (with the exception of the SPACE which has digital recall) so that the settings stay constant. My connectors are a mish-mash of whatever works and is durable. It doesn't look pretty and some people cringe when they see it. That being said, those people probably don't play 200 shows a year. I'm not a 'pedalboard porn' sorta guy; I appreciate great artwork on a pedal and an efficient layout but I use the pedals I use because they sound amazing every time and can be thrown around by TSA without breaking. An audience member doesn't say, "That band sounded fucking awesome", to their friend because the guitar's pedalboard looked good.
I've experimented with a lot of different pedals with XA. My pedalboard is somewhat of a revolving door but there are a number of constants on there. Pedals are a passion of mine and I'm been fortunate enough to develop great relationships with some very cool stompbox builders who I feel are at the cutting-edge of the game; principally Walrus Audio and Big Ear NYC. I'm shamelessly plugging these guys here because I really believe in what they do and I like promoting good people who make a quality products that are a cut above the rest.
I'm not much for manipulating a guitar's onboard controls. I rarely touch a volume control or pickup selector during the XA set and I almost never touch a tone control (except to mellow out my sound slightly while playing slide); I'd much rather make changes with my feet. Those of you who have seen me play probably observe how much I ride my volume pedal. It's by far and away my most important tool on stage and my right foot is probably on it for half of the set. The one I use is a Boss FV-500H. I bought it about a year ago and I'm really happy that I made the switch from the omnipresent Ernie Ball pedals that I had used for years. Both the Boss and Ernie Ball pedals are super rugged but the string in the Ernie Ball ones would always break eventually and repairing them is a complete nightmare. As is, I'd rather get punched in the face than have to fix one. Lots of people knock Boss pedals but there are a few things that the company does better than anyone else in my opinion. They're built like tanks and you can find them anywhere if one happens to fail (though they never do). We had the pleasure of working with Tom Morello this past week and his pedalboard is primarily Boss pedals. They get the job done.
We do so much flying that we hire backline gear on a daily basis. Because my pedals fly with me it's only logical that the majority of my tonal color come from them. Though I always ask for a late-model Fender '65 Twin Reverb Reissue I really never know exactly how it's going to sound. It might have tubes in it other than what comes stock, have different speakers in it or be biased in such a way that it breaks up more easily than most; I never know until I plug it in. Ideally I want a Twin that's loud as hell with a fairly-clean, warm and punchy sound when the volume control is around 3 and the treble, middle and bass are set at 6, 7 and 7 respectively. Sometimes I need to tweak things a bit from that starting point depending on the space we're playing in and the other aforementioned variables. If the distance from stage to front-of-house is particularly short I may turn down a bit or tilt the amp back so as to make life easier for Jon Pennington, our mixing engineer. I'm always in the vibrato channel with the reverb around 2 and the rate and depth for the vibrato all the way down.
As I mentioned, it's my pedals that I'm leaning on for character, not the amp. The two pedals that I'm primarily relying on to serve that purpose are Walrus Audio's Voyager Preamp and Electro-Harmonix's Soul Food. Those two pedals are always on for me; I never, ever turn them off. Both are Klon-esque pedals that are pretty transparent and allow you to keep your dynamics. You can see in the chain above where I have them; the Voyager is at the beginning (after the tuner) and the Soul Food is towards the end (most importantly after the volume pedal). From these pedals I'm looking for color as well as slight compression. In the case of both pedals the volume is just above unity, the gain control is almost all the way down and the tone control is set pretty flat. I use a combination of buffered and unbuffered pedals throughout the signal chain and I feel like having these two on all the time helps keep my signal strong as well as makes up for the fact that I rarely have my volume pedal all the way on. They particularly ensure that I'm hitting the reverbs and delays with a decent level.
The other drive pedals I use are the MXR Sub Machine, the Walrus Contraband Fuzz, the Big Ear Woodcutter, a plain-jane OCD and the Earthquaker Palisades. That's order they appear on the board and that's their order from grittiest to cleanest. I'm a big fan of layering drive pedals and almost all of the timbres I use for solos during the XA set are the result of a combination of overdrives. The Sub Machine is a relatively new pedal from MXR (I believe it was released at NAMM this past winter) and it's definitely the most versatile fuzz I've ever owned. What's particularly cool about it is that there's a sub octave, variably run in series or parallel, (controlled by a knob) plus an upper octave (controlled by a footswitch). This is what I use (and pretty much the only pedal I use) for "Jungle"; I add the upper octave towards the end of the tune. I also use the Sub Machine for "Superpower". The Woodcutter and OCD are the workhorse drives of the board. Basically if I want a creamer drive ("Unsteady", "Love Songs Drug Songs", "Unconsolable", the overdriven sounds in "Renegades", the tremolo picked chorus parts in "Low Life" and any slide parts, such as "Naked") I'm using the OCD. For tighter, and brighter, distortion sounds ("Loveless", the choruses in "Gorgeous", the choruses in "Giants") I'm using the Woodcutter. Grant at Big Ear modeled the Woodcutter on his favorite Rat from the 80's plus incorporated a bass boost when you really roll the grit on to compensate for the fact that you usually sacrifice some low-end with a Rat when you lay on the distortion. It's a super sweet pedal. The other two drive pedals (the Palisades and the Contraband Fuzz) are relatively new additions for me and I've mostly been using them as additional boosts on top of drives I already have engaged for solos. That said, I've been using the Palisades as a stand-alone for the into to "Unsteady" during the set. That pedal is without a doubt the most malleable overdrive I've ever used; I've barely scratched the surface of it's capabilities in the month or so that I've had it.
I'm a huge sucker for great sounding delay and reverbs. The main ambience pedal I use with XA is the Eventide SPACE. It's an incredibly powerful pedal but I was initially only able to feasibly utilize a small portion of it's power in a live setting because toggling through presets on the fly was kind of a pain in the ass. I ended up stumbled upon James Toh's Singapore-based pedal company, Morningstar Engineering, on Instagram one day and his MC-6 MIDI controller changed everything for me. The 6-switch foot controller he makes allows one to manipulate up to 8 MIDI capable device at once (via MIDI thru connections) and has allowed me to go from preset #8 to preset #78 with a single footswitch. If you're a Strymon BigSky, Line 6 or Eventide pedal user you gotta get one of James' controllers. On the SPACE I'm mostly using the Blackhole setting ("Unsteady", "Renegades" and "Gorgeous" intros) and the American Slapback setting ("Low Life", "Renegades" verse palm muted arpeggios). The other two ambience oriented effects on the board are the Vapor Trail and the Dark Star. People sleep on Seymour Duncan, in terms of effects, but they actually make some pretty phenomenal products. The Vapor Trail is a really warm analog delay with individual settings for rate and depth of modulation, which I love. It's so much more versatile than Carbon Copy or Memory Toy, both of which simply has on/off switches for modulation (I know you can get under the hood with both of the pedals if you take off the back plate but ain't nobody got time for that). The Vapor Trail is what I use for the choruses in "Low Life", choruses in "Love Songs Drug Songs" and during a lot of the solos during the set. The Dark Star pad reverb can be a super thick reverb effect and that's generally how I use it. I love the Old Blood Noise Endeavors pedals and the whole aesthetic that Brady and the guys down in Norman, OK have developed. I have their Black Fountain oil-can delay on my recording board at home too. Their stuff is just dripping with vibe. I use the Dark Star for the entirety of "Unconsolable" and "Giants".
The other pedals on the board I would label as auxiliary: the T-Rex phaser I use under Sam's solo during "Gorgeous", the DD-6 I use purely for the reverse effect during my "Renegades" and "Gorgeous" solos and the wah (totally stock standard Dunlop wah) I use only during the "Gorgeous" verses though I've occasionally experimented with using it elsewhere.