Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ghoul Tide

So, last week I worked on this track with my buddy Joe "Covenant" Lamb. Joe resides in Dundee, Scotland and we have never met in person, but we have wound up collaborating on music projects. I'm considering it sort of an apprenticeship in songwriting and recording -- he can write original songs, and I've never done it! It's good experience for me.

This is his entry for Song Fu 5, round 3. The challenge was to write a song that sounds like a holiday song, but which is not really about the holidays. Warning: it's kind of gruesome! Funny, but gruesome!

If you like it, consider donating to Joe, or buy some of his other tracks. (Voting for round 3 is over).

Joe plays guitar himself at an intermediate level (he says he can't play barre chords), but he is having painful problems with his shoulder, so was having a terrible time recording even a simple guitar part. He was kind enough to give me credit right in the song title itself.

On this song, I'm playing the Babicz acoustic, strummed and with some very simple finger-picking of the same chords, into one of the Rode NT-5 mics. I also gave Joe a very simple bass track, in which I'm playing the Steinberger XQ-4 v2, direct into the Apogee Ensemble. I also recorded my son Isaac (age 15) playing a bass line. Isaac's more of a bass player than I am, and plays upright acoustic bass in his high school jazz band, but he's not used to recording, and his timing was a little rough. Joe says for the final mix he used parts from both our tracks.

I laid down two tracks on the 12-string Adamas as well, strummed and finger-picked, and at least one of them is in there. And, finally, I transcribed Joe's demo into notes in Logic and had it play them using some virtual instruments. I think harp and glockenspiel are the ones that made it into the final mix. That was pretty tedious -- since I'm not much of a keyboard player, and my guitar synth is on loan, I started with my DX-7 but put in most of the notes by hand. MIDI note quantization in Logic is still a bit of a mystery to me.

Collaborating this way was a pain! Joe is 5 hours ahead of Michigan. We tried using Skype, and it worked once, but then on the second try Joe couldn't hear me, I could only hear him. We finally determined that Joe's tuner had malfunctioned, which meant that everything he had recorded was based on a concert A at 430 Hz, not 440. Joe's download speed was terrible. Then he changed his mind about the track tempo after I had recorded my parts twice. This all meant it took about three times longer and required three times more aggravation and retakes than it should have for such a simple part.

If we had been in the same studio we could have nailed all the tracks in an hour or two. At one point we were reduced to arguing about which beats the chorus chord changes should fall on by using _text messages_... talk about the blind leading the blind! I'm sorry to say that at one point I may have threatened to fly to Scotland and kick his rear end... sorry Joe! But I think all the pain was worth it. Next time, assuming we do this again, I hope we can figure out how to do it a lot more efficiently!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Getting Creepy Again

I had a little quiet time this afternoon. The plan was to record guitar parts for Creepy Doll, but I decided to try a vocal track. That quickly became five or six vocal tracks. I didn't get around to the electric guitar part yet, but did a couple quick tracks using the Babicz acoustic. All the tracks were recorded with the ribbon mic. I recorded the vocals using the back side of the mic -- ribbon microphones tend to have a different frequency response from the back (they usually have a figure-8 pickup pattern). The result was interesting! I may never record vocals with a condenser mic again. I'm not really any better at singing tightly on key, and I didn't apply pitch correction, but layering the tracks seem to help this a bit. (And, after all, it is supposed to be creepy).

Video clip here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Furby Guitars

So, just for fun, here is a rough mix assembled from some of the very raw (and even somewhat out-of-tune) tracks I put together hastily for Joe Covenant's Song Fu Round 1 entry.

On the left are 3 tracks of ukulele; on the right are 3 tracks of 12-string acoustic guitar. I wasn't really intending for all of them to be used together! I was fully expecting Joe to pick and choose and edit (which he did).

This obviously isn't very polished; as I explained in a previous entry, I was extremely rushed. At one point, my family was waiting in the car for me to finish recording the 12-string chords so we could jump in the car and drive to Saginaw. But still, I think it sounds fun. For those who enjoy watching sausage being made. Out of furbies.

My Monkey

This is the Mandelbrot Set's final mix of Jonathan Coulton's tune "My Monkey" -- on I have several tracks in here: fretless Steinberger Synapse bass, finger-picked electric guitar, and some layers of acoustic guitar. The gang is getting better! I did not mix or master this one. I put some concentrated effort into the guitar part quite some time ago -- I think it was back around the beginning of 2009.

I've put together a track of just my contributions, mixed and mastered, including an unused synth track I recorded (which, in the final, I think was replaced by a recorder part). When recording these tracks, I made an effort to clone Jonathan Coulton's source tracks as closely as possible, just to see how good a job I could do. I think my completed parts actually sound more polished, but I had an advantage: I wasn't trying to finish recording for a Thing a Week deadline. The only part that is really different is that I decided to use a fretless bass. The part is basically the same, just with that fretless feel. While I think I got the intonation reasonably good, using quite a few takes and a lot of editing, I'm still pretty much a beginner on the fretless and have a lot to learn yet.

So what's in the track? There are 3 separate complete takes of the entire electric guitar part, recorded direct into Logic via my Ensemble. I can't remember for certain which guitar I played, but I think it may have been the T-60. The guitar part goes into an amp modeler, an EQ, a Logic plugin called Ringshifter which provides the phaser effect, and then a compressor. There are two acoustic guitar lines: one is basically the same chords as the finger-picked part, and the other is the same chords played with a capo seven frets higher, or a perfect 5th up. The acoustic is my Ovation acoustic-electric, also directly into the Ensemble, through EQ, compressor, a sample delay plug-in, and Space Designer, using a room model called "Slap Chamber" for that slap echo. The synth parts I recorded by using my DX-7 as a MIDI controller rather than an audio source, doing a little editing of the resulting piano roll data in Logic, and then playing it back using a software instrument synth pad called "Glassy Ascent."

If you are interested, you can see a sloppy YouTube clip of the bass part here, and a mini-lesson for the finger-picked electric guitar part here.

Listening to it almost a year after recording these parts, I can hear some timing flaws; there's an issue where the chord changes at the end don't match the original song perfectly. However, I still am proud of the finished product!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Song Fu: Vote for "Tom Furby"

Please go here and vote for Joe "Covenant" Lamb's song! And whoever else's songs you like best.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ukuleles Aren't Cool

Or so Joe "Covenant" Lamb says. But yet... wait... Joe! What's that on your Song Fu #5 round 1 entry? Could it be... your friend Paul playing 3 tracks of ukulele? And a few more tracks of 12-string guitar?

The uke is an Applause model, Ovation's lower-end brand, made in Korea. I have it strung up with Aquila "Nylgut" strings that work great, although like all nylon strings they stretch, and stretch, and stretch, and so have to be constantly re-tuned. It's a tenor-sized instrument. They are tuned the same as a soprano, but with a longer scale, which means higher string tension, but also wider fret spacing. That's a bit plus for me since I'm so used to playing guitar; I have a hard time playing on the tiny fret spacing on my soprano uke. But the real feature I like best about this uke is that you can plug it in -- it has a built-in piezo pickup and EQ. So I was able to record both the 12-string and the uke direct.

The back story -- I collaborated with Joe on the Mandelbrot Set's version of Skullcrusher Mountain. He lives in Dundee, Scotland, which makes it a little tricky to organize a jam session, but I've been trying to find a way to collaborate with him on one of these songs for a while now; usually I've been unavailable in time, since the Song Fu entries always have a short deadline.

On Saturday I chatted with Joe online briefly about this track -- he was having trouble getting a harmonizing guitar part that really worked well. He sent me a track with his vocal plus drums. After the kids were asleep I hauled out my tenor uke and came up with a track to go along with the song's melody, and then a couple more tracks to harmonize with it. The song really called for a mandolin. I don't have one of those, but after this experience I might consider getting one.

Recording this was complicated a bit by the fact that Joe's vocal seemed to be in Eb; I'm not quite sure how that came about. So I had to play the uke melody and harmony parts in Eb. It also just never seemed 100% in tune with Joe's backing guitar, so I was messing around with tweaking it by a few cents, and wasted some time with that. It was getting pretty late, so I very quickly bashed out some accompaniment chords on the 12-string guitar too, again playing in Eb with a bunch of barres that didn't sound very good, partly because my hands aren't really strong enough to do good barres on the 12-string, at least not after all the playing I did on Friday night.

Anyhow, we got everyone up and out, took the kids to dim sum for lunch, and then were planning to go up to Saginaw to visit Grace's mother. I left everyone napping in the car and came in to see if there was anything else I could help Joe with, since I think today was his deadline. He asked me to re-record the 12-string, so I spent about an hour getting something better recorded on the 12-string. Ten minutes of that was retuning it to Eb. Fortunately the Adamas has extremely stable tuning so I was able to retune it and quickly lay down several tracks without worrying that it was going out of tune while I played. I recorded chords for the choruses, then a sort of harmony line, and then realizing I was very short on time, one more track of little scraps of harmony, in the hopes that Joe would be able to find something usable. I uploaded those, shot Joe a quick note, and we headed out.

We got back late, and I saw via Facebook that Joe had posted his song, and really made my guitar parts sound great. I think he used both the original and new 12-string chords, judiciously edited and doubled. I'm pretty sure he used at least some of almost every one of the seven tracks I sent him -- maybe even every track. He did some editing that is so tight I'm not even sure exactly what he did. Even some of the bits and incomplete phrases that I left on that track of "extra scraps" made it in there. It gets doubled and then doubled again and pretty wild, but it all somehow works together, with only some minor timing flaws. With more time I could have done retakes or time-aligned the attacks, but given the material he had to work with, I'm very impressed with the way he put it all together!

It helps that the song is so funny that I nearly wet myself when I first heard it. I hope you will listen to it, and more importantly, as soon as voting is open, vote for Joe!

See the Song Fu page round 5 page here. Check back to see when voting is open.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I'm Your Moon (Jonathan Coulton Cover)

I wasn't quite sure if I was going to put the lyrics onscreen for a karaoke track, record it on the 6-string, or record it on the 12-string. This isn't quite what I had planned to do. I wasn't even going to try singing it at all. But I think it came out pretty well! Especially for something recorded with sore hands, and in a couple of hours.

Paul's Cover of "I'm Your Moon" by Jonathan Coulton (YouTube video).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Working on the Moon

I've been working on Jonathan Coulton's song "I'm Your Moon."

Just a year ago this song was just out of my reach as a guitarist. But while some of my friends are probably sick of hearing my play Coulton and They Might Be Giants tunes, there is a madness to my method: my playing is improving. I'm able to grab chords faster and more accurately, I've memorized more chords, my right hand technique is better, my ability to sing along without wandering off key has improved, and I'm better at staying on something resembling a tempo. I've also learned a lot of convenient walking bass notes to add to chords. Coulton uses these a lot, and it's a great technique for acoustic playing.

This song is still pretty rough, but I'm gradually improving. It's an interesting song for a guitarist: there's a repeating set of chords that you play as picked arpeggios, and it sounds more complex than it is. It's really just two fingers nailed to an Asus2, with a bass note changing around it. It's useful when learning it to try playing just the bass note, so you can get used hearing it as part of the figure. The following bit of tab is borrowed from the tab on the Jonathan Coulton Wiki:

   A/E     B7/D#     Bm7/D   FMajb5

The hard part is not playing this riff; once you get into position and figure out the basic moves, it's easy. The hard part is jumping into it and out of it smoothly.

The song initially appears to have a big wad of additional chords to learn, but upon a little study, they aren't as hard as they look. There's a barred C#m, and a B major based on the second fret. I usually play this with just fingers 1 and 3, which means bending my third finger backwards. It might be time to break that habit and get it so I can consistently grab it with all 4 fingers, in order to help ensure that the first string rings clearly.

There is also F#m/C#, which sounds complicated until you realize it is just a barred F#m played in the normal way but without the 6th string. This allows you to emphasize the C# bass note. There's an E/A, which I just noticed I'm still playing wrong. Then there's this little trio of E major-based chords: Esus4, E, Eadd9, E. The jump to the Eadd9, fingered 024100, is a little tricky; I have to swivel my hand position so that Iift my third finger off the fretboard and reach with my pinky for the 4.

Aaug/C# is not difficult to play, but the Bm/Bdim switch I find tricky, and Bm to Bm7b5 (x2323x) is also tricky. I have finally gotten better grabbing the Bm7b5 chord shape, but just because I can go pretty reliably from from a D major open fingering to Bm7b5 doesn't mean I can reliably and quickly grab it when going from Bm. It's all about rearranging the fingers quickly, so quickly that it's pretty much a reflex action. The Bdim and Bm7b5 shapes are worth getting used to, though, since they appear a lot in less common chord voicings.

Finally, there's this little riff:


Coulton plays this when he sings "round and round." It's a clever little phrase and one of his little musical puns where the sound matches what he's singing.

Here's a quick video clip I recorded of yours truly practicing "I'm Your Moon". It's too dark, it's backward, and the sound isn't great, but it's what I could manage today; I had one baby sleeping on the bed a few feet away and another listening down next to my feet (and occasionally making comments).

I'm hoping to continue polishing it a little bit and recording a better version in a few days. I've set an additional challenge for myself, which is to play it on my 12-string. Those suspended chords sound gorgeous on the 12-string, but it's hard to get the little arpeggios and the barred chords and especially that Bdim to ring out cleanly on the 12-string without any buzzing and without hitting any unwanted strings. My fingers feel like I've been working them out on a cheese grater! If I can pull it off, though, it will make a beautiful recording.

This is one of the more wistful and gorgeous of all Coulton's compositions. I particularly like his use of suspended chords to make the song sound like it hovering somewhere between major and minor; those arpeggios also contribute to the feelings of circular movement and timelessness.

If I can get this song down cold, I think "Blue Sunny Day" would be a worthy next target. That song is just loaded with interesting voicings and really gets you jumping around the neck! And then of course I really still need to do some heads-down work on my fingerpicking; I'd like to be able to play "Millionaire Girlfriend," "You Ruined Everything," "I Crush Everything," and "Summer's Over." None of them seem out of reach of my left hand, but I've got to train my right hand to get those fingers picking!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Squier Venus Single Coil Demo

Here are a couple of recordings I made using the the black Squier Venus. If this experiment works you'll be able to hear what I consider so appealing about the tone of these guitars and why I just picked up two of them.

I ran the Venus running directly into my Peavey Mini Colossal 5-watt tube amp, with the power soak (output volume) turned all the way down so it doesn't drive the speaker at all (it's late, after all). I'm feeding my Apogee Ensemble with the XLR recording output of the Mini Colossal. It's going into Logic 9, into a virtual channel strip with a noise gate (the single coil pickup needs it), a pedalboard containing a compressor and chorus set relatively low, and then through a channel EQ and channel compressor. The whole track is then run through Ozone 4 using a 3-band tube saturation mastering preset, which isn't really doing that much except applying the multi-band compressor with the overall gain rolled down a bit.

The first tune I'm playing is Jonathan Coulton's "Chiron Beta Prime." I dig how this guitar's single coil pickup puts out quite a bit of throaty bass and mids. The volume control is rolled down to about five, and the three-way switch is set on the single coil neck pickup only. Your taste may vary, but I like the slightly laid-back tube crunch together with the chorus. I'm doing some palm muting and there are a lot of seventh chords that would sound very dissonant if the tube distortion was cranked up to heavy metal levels, but as it is they seem (to me) to just give a spray of harmonics that are bright but not shrill. But then, I'm probably going deaf, so your mileage may differ.

Just to do a little comparison and contrast, I also recorded "The Future Soon" using pretty-much identical settings but with the pickup selector switched over to the humbucker. I brought the guitar's volume knob down just a little bit more to keep the volumes at least approximately comparable. Note that the Venus has no tone control. The humbucker is loud and jangly. I prefer the sound of the single coil when recording a lightly distorted guitar part like this, but I think both of them actually sound pretty good. The humbucker is probably better suited to either a clean tone with EQ rolling off the highs, or heavier distortion to smooth it out a bit. Clearly more experimentation is needed!

If anyone cares, I played both using a Herco Flex 50 pick, which gives quite a bit of "snap."

Working on the Venus Guitars

So, today I got some screws I ordered from Stewart-MacDonald, and it was time to see if I could get the sunburst-finish Squier Venus back together. It needs height-adjusting screws and springs for its bridge pickup, and the pickguard is currently off. I also need to solder the ground wire back onto the output jack, since it popped off when I removed the pickguard.

It will look something like this when finished (well, plus strings). You can see why I am eager to get it put back together; it is a gorgeous guitar!

Unfortunately, neither type of screw I ordered today will fit the hole in the pickguard. I've already taken one of the originals to Stadium hardware, and they couldn't match it. I have a set of "Metric Hum Ht. Screws" on order from Allparts, along with some pickguard screws and pots, and we'll see if they fit. If not I'm at a bit of a loss; I may have to take apart the black one to get a sample of the correct screw and see if I can get it measured precisely. Here is one of the Stewart-MacDonald screws, not fitting.

Meanwhile, I got the black one intonated for tens and it sounds fantastic. I've raised the bridge slightly to give it slightly higher action. I'll see if I can make a quick recording of this guitar. It's got a lot of gorgeous hollow "scooped" woody tone, especially from the single coil. Joshua prefers to use the bridge pickup, though.

He also likes to turn the volume all the way up.

Here's one more guitar porn shot of the unusual bridge and pickguard design.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Screwed by Screws

So, I'm trying to get back to a project that has been on hold -- finishing up the final tweaks and repairs on three Squier Super-Sonics.

Super-Sonic number 1 is in storage, and is about as mint as possible, showing only slight finish aging that actually makes it look very pretty.

Super-Sonic number 2 also has some small bridge issues, and I've been trying to fix them. It looks like a previous owner stripped out some bridge saddle height adjustment screws and replaced them with some screws that weren't hex, and so they were a fugly mix that clearly was not original.

To fix this, I ordered a Fender set of replacement saddles. But here's where the story gets stupid and becomes all about metric and American parts. The saddles on the Super-Sonic look like traditional stamped Strat saddles, and are even stamped "FENDER." But although the saddles themselves are nearly identical to the USA parts, the screws are not. Of course, this isn't immediately obvious -- they are very close. Close enough that you can screw the USA screws into the Japanese saddles, but they are a little too loose. And if you try to screw the Japanese screws into the USA-made saddles, they won't fit, and since the metal of the saddles is so soft, you can easily ruin the threading. And the Japanese intonation screws also wouldn't fit into the USA-made saddles.

Anyway, as usual when screwing around with these Japanese parts I wasted a lot of time. The upshot is that the Super-Sonic now has Fender USA saddles, height adjustment screws, and intonation screws. It's nearly identical except that the screws are American gauges now. Does that constitute some kind of crime against authenticity that will ruin its vintage value? I don't know. I just know that it is a huge pain to try to find matching parts.

The next thing wrong with Super-Sonic number 2 is that the pots are really corroded and crackle and cut out very badly. I think they may be beyond cleaning. I have some nice new CTS 250K split-shaft pots to replace them with. But, of course, the pots on the original are smaller. The replacements won't fit through the faceplate, and the shaft won't fit the Mustang-style knobs. Ugh. What's my alternative? Cracking the pots open somehow without removing the soldered-on wiring so I can get in there with some spray contact cleaner? Get non-matching knobs and find someone who can widen the holes in the faceplate?

Super-Sonic number 2 also has some really poorly-behaving tuners. I have a set of locking vintage tuners that are supposed to be drop-in replacements for the Klusons... but I'm not optimistic that they will fit. For one thing, the holes in the headstock were drilled slightly too large, even for the tuners that are already in there. The bushings tend to fall out when you remove the strings. What's the repair that keeps the guitar as original as possible? I'm not quite sure.

The last thing wrong with Super-Sonic number 2 is that all the pickguard screws are corroded and need to be replaced. Pickguard screws ought to be as common as dirt, but I'm still looking for an exact match for the originals. They don't match the common Fender or Gibson sizes.

Super-Sonic number 3 has some more issues: the 3-way switch was cut down to a little stump by a previous owner. No 3-way switches I've been able to find will fit the very short body cavity, not even a special "short" Switchcraft switch. I think the answer is a switch from Allparts they call a Korean 3-way that looks like a match. If that fits then it's just a matter or careful soldering.

Super-Sonic number 3 also is missing its original string trees, so I'm trying to find string trees that match the Super-Sonics. They aren't quite the same screw size as any others I've been able to find, and use little white plastic spacers. If I want it to look original I have to find something that matches. Allparts has something that looks about right, but the Super-Sonic uses two different sizes of white plastic spacers. It's maddening.

I've also got a screw issue with one of my Squier Venus guitars -- it needs humbucker height adjustment screws that don't seem to match humbucker height adjustment screws from any other humbuckers I've seen. My local hardware gurus at Stadium hardware, which boasts a selection of thousands and thousands of screws, couldn't help me.

It would help if Allparts actually had measurements on all their parts, instead of blurry little photos.

This is not a hobby for the impatient!

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Halloween Set

I'm performing tomorrow night with my son Isaac, my friend Jim, and (if she can make it) my friend Ann, at a private Halloween/birthday/anniversary party. While this was not quite the original plan, I have spent most of my vacation (I've had the past two weeks off from work) polishing up these songs and rehearsing them with my friends. In fact, between rehearsals, working out parts, working on arrangements, scrounging last-minute gear purchases, and getting sheet music and lyrics together for everyone, it's been pretty much all I've been doing for the last ten days. My wife has been watching nervously and asking "you're enjoying this, right?" I am, mostly, but I'm also using it as an excuse to drive myself and try to push my playing and performing to that elusive next plateau that musicians are always seeking.

My rotator cuff is blown out from strumming and my calluses have calluses, which are now peeling off. I'm going to have to take a few days off after this!

I'll be playing 6- and 12-string Ovation and Adamas acoustic guitars and Applause ukuleles. I can has endorsement contract?

The set is an, er, eclectic mix of children's songs, humorous songs, and two classic spooky folk/rock songs.


Beck -- The Golden Age

Robyn Hitchcock -- The Ghost Ship

Paul and Storm -- Nugget Man


Jonathan Coulton -- The Future Soon

Jonathan Coulton -- Chiron Beta Prime

Jonathan Coulton -- Still Alive

They Might Be Giants -- Fake Believe

The Eagles -- Hotel California

They Might Be Giants -- I C U

They Might Be Giants -- Particle Man



They Might Be Giants -- ZYX

Gordon Lightfoot -- The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Jonathan Coulton -- Creepy Doll

They Might Be Giants -- Dead

Jonathan Coulton -- Re: Your Brains

Jonathan Coulton -- Skullcrusher Mountain

Elvis Presley -- Jailhouse Rock

I don't think we'll be recording this set, but I'll be making videos of some of these songs in the near future, particularly the ukulele and guitar parts. I'm down-tuning for some of the songs: I can sing Skullcrusher Mountain much more easily in C instead of E, and The Future Soon much more easily in B flat. I may eventually wind up setting up some instruments specifically to keep down-tuned. It's kind of like, as one Twitter friend commented, a "reverse capo!"

UPDATE: it turns out we did get video of the performance. Not very good video, but video nonetheless. See my YouTube feed. Watch them quick before YouTube takes them down for copyright violations, since we covered a number of different songs. Personally I think a strong case could be made that these short excerpts fall under the fair use exception to copyright, but I don't run YouTube.

Ann did not show up, so we had to make do without her. Fortunately we had planned for this possibility and rehearsed with other folks leading the songs. Jim did a great job on a few songs. Isaac did a reasonably good job on Still Alive. The rest were up to me. I didn't sound too bad for some of the songs, especially after I was warmed up. Everyone seemed to have a good time. But I know I'm not a terribly strong singer -- vocals are still sort of my achilles heel as a musician. I'm not just awful, but I just have a tendency to drift off pitch, even when singing something in my range, and especially if I'm singing solo while accompanying myself on guitar. If I have other folks singing to calibrate myself against, I do much better.

I've had numerous suggestions for voice lessons, and I'm considering it, but -- well, I stopped taking guitar lessons after child #4 was born because I just couldn't guarantee any practice time, and since we juggle one car, relying on my wife to help me get to lessons on time was just not going to fly. I may still be able to find a teacher who can accommodate weekend times or something like that. But our lives are very, very busy now, so it may have to wait a little longer -- at least until we no longer have two in diapers.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Guitar Pron 10: Two Squier Venus Guitars

The Squier Venus is an interesting design. Like the Super-Sonic (see Guitar Pron 5: The Squier Super-Sonic), this one was made by Fender Japan in the 1997-1998 time frame. As one of the "Vista" series instruments, it is built considerably better than the "Squier" name might seem to imply. Also, although the Jagmaster gets more respect, these Venus guitars are better-built (although the workmanship is not what I'd call fantastic, only good; there are almost always minor fit-and-finish issues on these instruments that remind me that they didn't get a lot of attention in the build process).

It has an extremely flat body, and it is made of (I think) basswood, making it very light. The body has wide "hips," and a very, well, curvaceous pickguard design. It's definitely a feminine take on classic electric guitar design. The lighter body makes it kinder on someone a little smaller. This instrument may be made for a woman, but with that jangly tone it is also strong enough for a man! The scale length is 25.5 inches, the same as a Stratocaster. I wonder why Courtney Love didn't design a short-scale like the Jag-Stang?

Note also that it is a hardtail, which is unusual in a Fender or Squier instrument that isn't a telecaster. And not only that, but it has a tune-o-matic bridge and string ferrules running through the body. And yes, that neck is bound!

These instruments came with gig bags, not hard-shell cases, and so they are usually pretty dinged up. It's a bit tricky to find a case that fits this wider body design, although some generic cases will fit. With the very flat body, you may want to put some kind of extra pad inside so that it is not hanging by the neck (storing it this way long-term might tend to cause the neck to warp).

I recently came across someone selling two of them locally, and not through eBay, so decided to make an offer on both. Both of them are in good condition but needed a little work. The black one needed a good cleaning and setup, and the neck was misaligned a bit. That was easy to fix, though. It's now set up with 10s and the action is raised a bit, and it plays wonderfully. There's no tone control -- it's got very basic electronics, just a humbucker, a single-coil, and a 3-way switch. Courtney Love was allegedly fond of just the Seymour Duncan Little '59, which is interesting because that's one of the pickups I chose for my heavily modified Jag-Stang -- another project I need to complete someday.

I apologize for the quality of these photos -- it's hard to get a good view of a black instrument. I did not get a chance to set them up against a photogenic background like I did with the Super-Sonics. I'll try to get some better shots of these after I finish up the rest of the minor repairs.

There is also a sunburst model that is in even better condition, but for some reason is missing some screws and springs on the pickups. I also have to re-solder some wires, but that is not too difficult. I don't have a photo of the sunburst one put together yet. I'm sorry the color is so bad in these photos -- this classic burst paint job is actually very nicely done and not garish at all. I'll try to get some shots in natural daylight after I get it put back together and set up.

There is another color commonly seen, and that is sea-foam green. I'll give that one a miss, thanks. It may be a classic surf color, but it's just too ugly for me. There is also a relatively rare Venus 12-string that I'd like to try -- I've never played a 12-string electric. I'm also still looking for another Vista-series Jagmaster, preferably one with the truss rod adjustment at the headstock.

Guitar Pron 9: Godin LG

Godin has some guitars out now that represent incredible bang for the buck. Assembled in the U.S. out of Canadian parts, the lower-end of the range, the LG, is really a tremendous instrument. This one is a lovely red over mahogany, with the grain visible, and black hardware.

While a pretty basic guitar, the sunken bridge and very comfortable body contouring give it a little extra style.

The design is very reminiscent of some of Gibson's offerings, particularly the classic Les Paul Junior. I'm not fond of the heavy Les Paul designs, but the Les Paul Junior is one of the few Gibson guitars I might consider actually buying one day. However, with instruments like this LG available with decent build quality and a more comfortable playing experience, it's hard to get as enthused about the Les Paul Junior anymore.

This is an older LG, with the "tetrad" pickups, and pulling on the tone control engages a coil tap.

The only design elements I don't really like are these grooves into the body to allow the strings to reach ferrules that run through the body, for extra sustain. They just seem slightly cheesy, and the ferrules have some problems: they are a little fiddly when trying to thread the strings, and they introduce a sharp edge where the strings tend to break.

The only other thing I'd change is to provide a truss rod cover; even on a basic model, this should not be really considered optional. But despite these minor shortcomings it's really a very attractive and playable package, and I'd whose-heartedly recommend a used LG to any student looking for a decent and economical instrument, but I also wouldn't hesitate to play a real gig with mine.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Guitar Pron 8: Steinberger XQ-4 Bass (v1)

The recession has hit musicians pretty hard and so I've had the opportunity to pick up some instruments on eBay recent at prices that would have been unheard of just a few months ago. I have long wanted to own an older Steinberger (ideally, one of the L-series basses and a P-series guitar), but they tend to go for crazy money. This one came along for a price that I thought was actually reasonable, though.

In a previous installment I reviewed a v2 XQ-4 made recently in the "Music Yo" era: see this blog entry.

This one is older; I don't have a precise date, but looking at serial numbers, it probably comes from around 1990. The Gibson buyout was in 1986, at least according to Wikipedia, which means this one was produced somewhere in that transitional period. I think the neck was likely made at the Newburgh plant, but I'm not entirely certain of that. I am certain that it is a "v1" Q-series instrument; the lines are a little different, the body is thicker and heavier (maple instead of swamp ash), and it has a few little design issues that were improved upon with the v2 design. It won't fit in a form-fitting case made for the v2 models.

But I'm also sure, after playing it, that it is a better instrument. It lacks the stacked HAZ Labs EQ, although the active EMGs do use one 9-volt battery. Some of the details feel a little off. When it arrived, the nylon strap peg on the butt end was broken. It sticks out a little differently than the pegs on the v2 model. Fortunately I happened to have some black locking tuning pegs that look very similar and which fit perfectly. I'm not enough of a purist to try to find originals, if the originals are flimsy.

It has some finish cracks, and a number of dings and scratches; the battery holder had come loose and was rattling around in the compartment. That's an easy fix. There's a cringe-worth little gash in the neck itself, but it doesn't affect the playability. The sound of this thing is unmistakeable, and fantastic.

While the instrument with the Moses Graphite neck sounds nice, and has some punch to it, it also can be described as sounding a little "warmer" -- more like a wooden-necked bass. Apparently that was a deliberate design decision and the Moses Graphite necks are "tuned" to provide a woodier tone. There's nothing very natural-sounding about the old-school Steinberger tone. It's metallic; it doesn't sound at all like wood. "Harsh" is not too strong a word, but you could also call it "pure." EQ it down, and it could make a decent jazz bass; pop a string, and you've got Dave Stewart playing a crazy funk bass line in a Eurythmics tune. The sounds it makes are absolutely iconic, and I grew up with them, so they are also nostalgic. My bass playing is not really good enough to do this thing justice, but I'll have to make a recording, just to show it off. There's just something different, and fascinating, about these instruments.

The bridge on this thing feels a little more solid, even though it lacks the steel insets of the V2 instrument. It has a neat down-tuning feature: an adjustable lever that can be popped up to lower the E string down to a D. I'm not sure I will use it much, since changing just one string like this screws up the scale patterns in my head, but it may find a use. Impressively, the string stays perfectly in tune.

The only thing I really am unhappy with is that this instrument didn't come with a hard-shell case; it came with only a flimsy gig bag. Since it's relatively heavy, that's just not adequate; a lot of the dings on the instrument, and the broken strap peg, could have no doubt been avoided with a good case.. So I will be keeping an eye out for one, either a case made for this model or one I can adapt to fit it.

However, I also feel pretty certain this thing won't be staying in its case very much. That's the real reason that all the "vintage" Steinberger basses you see for sale are so beat up. The owners just couldn't keep their hands off of them!

Update 17 Dec 2009

Ed Roman writes of this model that it has excellent tone, but is not balanced very well. He's correct -- the body is awkwardly heavy. It wouldn't be my first choice to wear on a strap for a live show. However, the Nashville v2 XQ-4 I have has the opposite problem -- the body is too light compared to the neck. There probably exists somewhere an XQ-4 with a Steinberger Blend neck, HAZ Labs EQ, and a swamp ash body that is just right; I'm keeping an eye out for it.

He also says they have a "horrible appearance (my opinion)," and, well -- yeah, the combination of some sharp edges together with some rounded edges make it a little weird looking; the "design language" is inconsistent.

I've done a little recording of this thing and it sounds fantastic. The active pickups do push out quite a bit of voltage, though -- the difference in voltage between a light pluck and a hard string pull is huge. I have to be careful not to clip the input to my Apogee Ensemble. My son plays upright acoustic bass, and has larger hands than I do. I had the input level set perfectly for my playing, but when I handed it to him to play, he plucked the strings much harder, and the levels were blowing out all over the place! I am still planning on trying some kind of active direct box such as the Radial JDV Mark 3, which lets me select the exact loading for different kinds of pickups.

I have just completed a "Buy it Now" on an XP-4 bass, and it should be arriving soon. The P series were a short-lived model with small "flying V" shaped wooden bodies and Steinberger Blend necks. Per Mr. Roman again, these "sound great" because of the wooden body -- better, he claims, than the L series. I have 3 days approval to decide if I want to return this instrument for a refund, so I will be examining and testing it very thoroughly. I would also love to find a P-series guitar with the S-trem (a hard tail, which I'd really prefer, apparently was never offered).

I'm not really interested in the Trans Trem -- I'd probably waste way too much time fiddling with it, trying to get it to work perfectly in tune. Since I am very picky about tuning, it would probably frustrate me no end. It's an intriguing invention but, to my mind, just slightly impractical in implementation; some versions seem to work better than others, and they all seem to require a lot of maintenance.

I am also scratching my head and pondering whether I want to try to acquire an L series (all-composite "boat oar") Steinberger, if I can find a good one at a great price. They are considered the most collectible of the bunch and were tending to go for crazy money, although the current economy has apparently created a buyer's market for guitars of all kinds. It gets at the question of exactly what I am doing. Some of my instruments are for playing and recording, and some are for investing. Would I buy a "boat oar" instrument strictly to invest in, knowing that it isn't going to be one of my personal favorites? I guess it depends on how much confidence I put in my own taste and judgment!

Update 22 Dec 2009

The P-series instrument has not arrived yet, but last night I tried to change the strings on this XQ bad boy. I discovered that the bridge has suffered some abuse. The D-string tuner seems to be missing a spring and possibly some little spacers; the knurled knob grinds right up against the bridge and has chewed a semicircle of exposed aluminum. The threaded rod for that tuner may be slightly bent; it turns much harder than the others. The E string tuner, which has the detuning mechanism, also seems like it may be missing a spring, and the knob was not staying put on the threaded rod but coming right off the end. It took me some time and a lot of aggravation to figure out how to expand the tuner and get the knob clamped back on. The E string tuner had 3 little spacers so I borrowed one to put on the D string tuner, which helps a little, but I have no idea if that how it was originally put together. It's an ingenious design, but a little fiddly, which is the same complaint I've read about the transposing tremolo. The jaws apparently have a tendency to break, and the saddle blocks have a tendency to wear badly and cut the strings.

My best guess is that a previous owner (perhaps the guy who sold it to me, perhaps someone else) took it apart and some springs, and maybe some spacers as well, went flying. I discovered myself that the tiny spacers are awfully easy to lose.

I also discovered that two of the four screws that mount the bridge to the guitar body were missing. I can't imagine why, since the screw holes in the body are not stripped, and those screws seem pretty important. Did someone cannibalize this instrument to repair another one?

Anyway, I called Ed Roman guitars. They have the 4-string DB bridges in stock, but they want $240 for one. I'll have to think that over. This one works, but not as well as it should. It might be wise to get a replacement bridge now, while they are still available. New-old stock Steinberger parts are getting scarce; Music Yo no longer sells parts from their stockpile.

Anyway, Ed Roman Guitars told me they don't have screws that match mine. The screws are an odd shape, wood screws with a high, rounded head, and black. Once again, screws are the bane of my existence as a hobbyist luthier. I'll have to go screw-hunting once more; if I find some screws that are close, maybe I'll just paint them black.

Update 08 Feb 2009

The P-series bass arrived just before Christmas -- see photos here. I decided not to make the same mistake I did with this one, so I had a new set of strings ready for it, and changed them to verify that the bridge worked as expected. It did -- the new instrument is in great shape. The P-series bass sounds fantastic. The passive EMG pickups were only used in those instruments, and a relatively small number of P-series basses were made.

The v1 XQ-4 is still disassembled. I have found screws that will work to mount the bridge to the body -- they are rather exotic "Fillister head" black wood screws. Your local hardware store is very unlikely to carry these. The originals were Philips drive, but I couldn't find exact matches anywhere. The ones I finally ordered are slotted for hex (Allen) drive. The important thing is that they fit the bridge and the existing screw holes in the body perfectly! There must be a story behind Steinberger's use of such an exotic fastener.

I just sent Peekamoose guitars a note asking if I could send them the bridge to rebuild, without shipping the entire bass. I'd rather not buy a new-old stock part, since then I'd be left with a slightly damaged bridge that I couldn't sell. I'd really prefer to get the original parts working properly. We'll see what they say. If I have to pay to ship this very heavy bass both ways, it might be more cost-effective just to buy that new-old stock bridge.

Guitar Pron 7: Adamas 12-String

Here is another eBay find -- a near-mint Adamas 12-string acoustic guitar with a woven carbon fiber top. This one seemed perfect for me since the cobalt blue top is one of my favorite colors.

The "epaulets" are made of a series of different hardwoods.

12-string bridges always look almost comical, and this one is no exception.

The neck looks a bit like the neck on a Peavey Cirrus or a high-end Carvin guitar.

12-string guitars are almost aways top-heavy, due to the massive tuner hardware involved. These tuners are particularly fine.

The real thrill in this thing, though, is the way it sounds. The top is incredibly resonant, and it projects a ridiculous amount of volume if you dig in with a heavy pick. I almost can't use it to accompany my vocals without a mic and PA system. It could really project to the back of an auditorium. Go a little lighter, and it is as expressive as a brush on a snare. The sound is not woody, like a Martin, but brassy and metallic, almost electronic sounding. In fact, it sounds a lot like a Steinway piano, or a harpsichord.

The action is low, and it is easier to play than just about any 12-strings I've ever used, although I don't think my hands are really ever going to enjoy playing sustained barre chords up the neck of a 12-string, and even my guitar teacher, whose hands are stronger than mine, gave up with a laugh when he tried to bend the strings. The sound isn't for everything, but I do love the sound of a 12-string!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Guitar Pron 6: the Blonde Limited

So, my collecting has slowed down a bit, but I'm still scanning eBay listings for guitars I believe in at great prices. That means I watch quite a few auctions, and when the price becomes too high, drop out. Sometimes if a listing has a "Buy it Now" option, I'll make a lowball offer near the end of the auction -- the worst the seller can do is say no, or ignore my offer. That's what usually happens. But sometimes they say yes.

In this particular case, the seller's asking price was pretty high compared to the selling price of other Limiteds. I made an lowball offer. The seller made a counter-offer, which was still a little high for my taste, so I split the difference and made a counter-counter offer just before the end of the auction. The seller accepted my offer.

I have a couple of Peavey Limited guitars. Every Limited that I've seen has had a flame maple or quilted maple top stained with a dye: Tiger's Eye, Margarita, dark blue, or rasberry red. I came across this one on eBay. I believe it must be a fairly rare bird -- it may have been made for a NAMM show or originated as a custom order. Or, maybe the luthiers in Leakesville just happened to have some wood that they thought would look prettier without a colored stain.

The flame maple top isn't as flashy as some of the PRS "ten tops," but then I consider some of those to be too flashy for my taste. This one is just a subtly gorgeous piece of wood, with a rippling 3-dimensional quality.

It has all the basic attributes of the other Limited models. This is a dual humbucker "HB" model. I'm still keeping an eye out for a "VT" model, with 3 hand-wound single-coil pickups, but those seem to be as rare as hen's teeth.

The "zebra" cream-and-black humbuckers go particularly well with this top.

The back shows off the mahogany body.

There's a little bit of corrosion on a couple of the neck screws. This kind of corrosion is probably caused by someone sweating against it -- the salt corroded the screws the same way it does a car. But it's nothing serious. I had to do a bit of adjustment to the neck position; it was slightly off-kilter, indicating that maybe the guitar took a knock in shipping, even though it was well-packed. The other possibility is that it may have spent too much time in a dry environment, allowing the wood of the neck pocket to shrink slightly, so that it was no longer making firm contact with the neck. In any case, this was not a difficult adjustment -- I just loosened the neck screws a bit and applied a little force to shift it into the right position, then held it there while I re-tightened the neck screws. It does require a certain degree of experience to know how much force you can apply without risking damage to the neck or neck pocket. It shifted back into place nicely and now the instrument is perfectly playable and the tuning is stable again.

The frets need a little bit of light touch-up work, so I'll take it up to Elderly the next time I go. But besides that, it doesn't need much of anything. It has that nice light weight, body contour, and woody, hollow tone that is characteristic of this series. I'll very likely be using this one to record.

If you're wondering what the difference is between "flame" maple -- this guitar's top -- and "qulited" maple, check out my earlier pictures of another Peavey Limited, which has a "quilted" top:

Guitar Pron 1 (a link to another entry in this blog).

My understanding is that "quilted" maple looks more wavy and irregular, like ripples in water, and the pattern may be larger. But don't quote me; I'm not an expert.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mandeville Ward (Demo)

So, I was going to record an acoustic demo, but it is raining hard today, complete with thunder. That's a lot of background noise to be working with when recording an acoustic guitar. So I decided to try something else. Along the way I got the idea to start with some loops played through the Vestax VCI-300. Also, I revised the lyrics still further for length and meter. I don't entirely have the hang of editing with Logic 9 yet. Anyway, it's done. Start-to-finish time, about 3 hours.

One of the samples is from an industrial instrumental created by Braindouche, from her podcast episode entitled Not Dreamy. There are a couple more loops, my vocal, and a guitar part, and that's about it. The vocal isn't very good. I don't have the right kind of voice for this kind of track, but I went for it anyway.

MP3 File

Update: the person who contributed the original lyrics asked to be credited as "Aidan Galea." So there it is -- words by Aidan Galea, music by yours truly with samples from Braindouche!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lyrics in Progress

Someone I know only through Twitter -- who may or may not be a high-school aged person in Melbourne -- posted a link to a lyric. I thought it had a lot of promise, so I offered to try recording it. S/he approved the idea.

First, I needed to make it flow more like a song. The original reminded me of two songs: Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," and The Verve Pipe's "Freshmen." I can't quite make sense out of the story, especially I don't even know if the protagonist is male or female, but maybe the ambiguity is actually a virtue.

So, I worked over the scansion a little bit, turned some of the text into a chorus, and dropped a verse that I didn't think would fit. Here's the text as I'm going to try recording it. Unless I hear otherwise, the text is copyrighted by anonymous in Melbourne. My recording will be Creative Commons-licensed. I have no idea what the licensing state of this lyric should be, given that it is a revised version of someone else's work, but for now let's just say that the lyric continues to be copyrighted by anonymous.

Mandeville Ward

Lyrics by Anonymous, revised by Paul R. Potts

You’ve got the whole world fooled
While you hide in your slumber
Our friends are pacing, scared
To the nurses, you're a number

We never really thought that things could go from bad to worst
You promised if they did, you’d try to tell us first
Now you're covered in tubes and you’re covered in blood
You left us all a letter saying that “Enough is enough”
You said “We're 7 billion people, and we’re all just the same,
so why should I matter, if everyone's in pain?”
Won't you tell me?


I remember the day when this whole thing started;
The worst was yet to come, even though we had parted our ways.
Parted our ways...
But here I am...
And here you are...
in Mandeville Ward

I never should have left you -- you were good enough
I tried to tell you you were perfect, but you called my bluff
I meant every single word that I said from the start
But my words aren’t enough to make the blood pump
through your heart

Now your brother's out front and he’s smoking again
He says "I didn’t lose a brother, I also lost a friend"
And your parents are thinking that they are to blame
But no matter what happened, it would have turned out
just the same
At two o' clock this morning, your father pounded on my door
With tears on his cheeks he cried "What's it all been for?"
Won't you tell me?


I remember the day when this whole thing started;
The worst was yet to come, even though we had parted our ways.
Parted our ways...
But here I am...
And here you are...
in Mandeville Ward


The last time I saw you, you told me I was to blame
You shouted, "I still love you, but it can never be the same"
You were like a different person, playing a different part
You said "I can't see you any more," and my whole world
blew apart

But here I am...
And here you are...
in Mandeville Ward

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Guitar Pron 5: the Squier Super-Sonic

Back around 1998, the Fender factory in Japan was making Squier-labeled guitars from the Vista series that were better, apparently, than Fender HQ was comfortable with. Sold as lower-priced instruments, the workmanship on these instruments rivaled the Fender USA instruments and certainly beat their other overseas-built guitars, although some of the parts, particularly the electronics, are somewhat sub-standard. The Squier Super-Sonic is one of the best of this series, although I also own a Jagmaster and have played a Venus and both also are pretty well-made guitars that outshine most instruments built in their price range.

The Super-Sonic is a short-scale instrument, with a 24" scale. It's got a belly cut (which comes in handy, in my case) as well as the forearm contour. That makes it is a very nostalgic-feeling instrument for me because my first electric guitar was a Fender Mustang, a Competition model in red with the racing stripe and painted headstock, which had a similar body shape. With a 24" scale length, the Mustang fit my relatively small hands nicely. (I can play a Stratocaster-scale instrument, but it always just feels slightly awkward to me, even decades later). I'm not sure why short scales are always aimed at the low end of the market, as student or entry-level instruments; I think some experienced and even professional guitarists would also appreciate short-scales, if they were as finely made as this one.

Anyway, the Super-Sonics can be had at pretty low prices, or at least they could; I haven't seen very many go by on eBay recently. They were made in black, white, silver sparkle, and blue sparkle. For a year or so I stalked eBay looking for the instruments in excellent condition and good prices. I watched a number of them go buy without bidding on them, and bid on a few and watched the price go up past my comfort zone. But after some careful bidding I own three of them, two in silver sparkle and one in blue sparkle.

This silver one is in the best shape: the body and hardware are nearly perfect. The poly finish has yellowed very slightly, which gives the whole thing a slightly gold look. The blue one is in second-best condition; the finish is excellent, a brilliant blue yellowing slightly to aqua, but it has needed some bridge parts replaced and has more troubles with the knobs and electronics.

As a young teenager I didn't really appreciate what a finely-built instrument the Fender Mustang was, although it was sold as a student model. And I never could get the tone I wanted out of it. Now I understand that with its low-voltage single-coil pickups, the Mustang was built for twang and surf, not emulating Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It was a hand-me down from my stepbrother, and since it came cheap, I didn't really understand its value. I'm trying not to make that mistake again. A word of advice for guitarists: if you have a guitar and you don't like its tone, after experimenting with different amplifiers, don't modify the guitar by replacing the pickups; it could ruin whatever collectible or resale value it may have had. Find another guitar that comes closer to the sound you want. If you do decide you must change out the pickups, find exact physical replacements so you don't have to do any routing or drilling, find pickups that give you similar but better-quality tone, and save the original pickups in case a future owner wants to put the instrument back to stock. And remember: most of the tone you get from an electric guitar is in your fingers and your amplifier, not the wood. I'm not joking when I say this, although some gearheads may think I am.

The Super-Sonic has an interesting design: it looks like a left-handed guitar played right-handed. The word is that it was inspired by Jimi Hendrix's use of right-handed guitars left-handed.

The body is basswood and the neck is maple, with a "skunk stripe." The truss rod is the bullet style, which adjusts at the headstock. It is a godsend to be able to adjust a truss rod without removing the neck.

An aside: I also have a Jagmaster which needed truss rod adjustment and it had a poorly-fitting neck pocket, and also a shim, which fell out when I loosened the neck to adjust the truss rod; it still isn't right. The neck pocket on these Super-Sonics seem tighter, by comparison. And another quick aside: I'm still keeping an eye out for one of the Japanese Jagmasters with the bullet truss rod; apparently a few were made, but they are scarce. I'll do a photo spread on the Jagmaster at some point, although it is not quite as pretty.

These instruments are much easier to maintain. They have vintage frets -- tall, narrow fret-wire. The frets wear pretty quickly. The silver one needs to have the frets leveled and crowned, but they aren't too bad -- I don't think any frets need to be replaced. I'm planning to run it up to Elderly Instruments and see what they can do with it.

The electronics of the Super-Sonic have an odd layout: it has no tone controls. Those are both volume controls. And oddly, the one closer to the bridge controls the neck pickup, and vice-versa. The only rationale I can think of for this odd arrangement is that if you're playing a solo on the bridge pickup, you can use your pinky to do volume fades.

The last oddity to comment on is the strap peg. The one on the butt end of the guitar is normal, but the other one is actually mounted on the neck plate. I think the idea might have been that you could move it to either horn and play the guitar right or left handed -- one of mine has been modified like that. But I actually kind of like it where it is.

There really is a lot to like about these guitars, but a few things not to like. The tuners are a bit flimsy, so I've considered replacing them with drop-in replacement vintage locking tuners from Gotoh, but I haven't done it yet. For some reason the headstock holes in the Vista series guitars tended to be drilled just slightly too large, which means that when you go to change the strings, the tuner bushings sometimes fall out. That's sloppy. The string trees tend to bind up on the strings and tuning these instruments is a little tricky; despite my best efforts at nailing down the tremolo, with extra springs and tightening down the tremolo screws, heavy bends still tend to pull the other strings out of tune a bit; if I were to use them live, I'd probably have to re-tune quite a bit during a set, where some of my other instruments -- the Ovation acoustic, the Peavey T-60s, the Steinberger basses, and the Parker Fly -- hold their tuning much more securely. I may see if I can get Elderly to block the trem on one of them, for the sake of tuning stability, although it affects the tone a bit.

I've got these two set up with 11s, with the truss rods and tremolos adjusted accordingly. I adjusted the intonation with a Peterson virtual strobe tuner, and they sound great. The only problem is that the bridge saddles don't slide far enough to intonate the low E and A strings perfectly. So I might wind up going back to 10s. I think they may have been set up for 10s in the factory.

Despite these minor quibbles, I love these instruments. They are a blast to play -- low action, short scale, tone out the wazoo, easy string bending, and a really striking look! If you can still find one in good condition for a decent price, I recommend you give it a try.

Oh, how do they sound? Well, a couple of my YouTube videos feature me playing the Super-Sonics, but I'm not really happy with the sound quality that results after YouTube gets done compressing my video files. When I get a little more free time -- hah! -- I will try to record something a little higher-quality for you to listen to -- mabye just audio, or maybe my first-ever video clip on Vimeo, which claims to provide better video and sound quality.