Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Man, A Plan, A Soldering Iron, Part I: The Why

I am a guitarist of the indie-rock/anything-goes school. Although I’ve been playing for 27 years, I’m pretty much resigned to maxing out as an okayish player, which may even be a generous self-assessment. Despite my limitations, playing music and being a part of bands have been an important part of my life and I don’t really want to quit just because I’m, y’know, old and busy with other things and not that great of a musician. In recent years, I’ve become more interested in tone, which is an aspect of music that comes with a price tag attached.

For most of the time I’ve played electric music, I’ve played fairly clean. Guitar, cord, amp. No pedals. I spent money on the best guitar and amp I could get at the time, and if I had any other cash, I spent it on different instruments. I’ve lacked confidence – justifiably – in my guitar playing, and through most of my 20s, I played bass, mandolin, a smattering of other instruments, and only occasionally guitar in bands. In my 30s I started taking the guitar more seriously, mostly under the influence of my friend Matt, who is a very good guitarist. Matt encouraged me to invest in a few pedals for added grit and to think about my tone. Recently I’ve gone far past the tasteful few pedals that Matt surely meant.

So, first off, I play through a vintage 1965 Princeton Reverb. I’ve replaced the speaker twice, once with a Weber 10” alnico and, more recently, with a Weber 12” alnico. I have held onto a number of guitars that show off my financial limitations: a Tokai Strat copy, a Tokai Telecaster copy, an Epiphone Sheraton that I modded into a Casino with some mini-P-90s, and, within the last three months, a J. Mascis Squier Jazzmaster, which is now my main axe. All of which is to say that I have decent enough equipment. The Princeton breaks up beautifully when overdriven (starting at about 5 on the volume knob) and has top-notch chorus and reverb settings built into it. My guitar has excellent tone, and as long as I'm happy with the straight guitar to amp sound that I have, everything is fine. But I'm not satisfied with a single sound.

Last summer I had some severe medical problems that damaged my right leg, and I've been a lot less active since. I was also unemployed for about 18 months that included all of 2011. Towards the end of the year, with too much time on my hands and not a lot of money, I decided that I was try my hand at modifying my meager guitar pedals.

The pedals I'd been carrying around for years were a Catalinbread Chile Picoso clean boost, a Danelectro (Dano from here on out) Daddy-O (which is pretty much the same thing as a Marshall Guv'ner overdrive), a beat-up MXR Distortion + from the 70s, a Dano Rocky Road rotating speaker simulator, all of which were offset from the main line by a Loooper loop pedal, and a Boomerang 2 phrase sampler. Here's a post from 2005 that included my brief flirtation with running the phrase sampler through a cheap-o Sunn 0))) 112. I believed that the Catalinbread was true-bypass (meaning that my signal was unaffected by the electronics inside the pedal when it was off), and the other pedals were branched off of my main line by the Loooper until I wanted them, so I had a pretty clean line, or so I thought, from guitar to amp. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The first modification ("mod," from here on) was to the Rocky Road pedal, and I did this back in 2003 or 2004. Those pedals came with a gain issue, so they were super-loud when switched on. Danos are not true-bypass pedals, meaning that they always affect your signal, which is why I had it on one of the Loooper loops, but the gain issue made it an unusable pedal. However, with a quick jumper between two pads, I had a fine, cheap, although unbypassed pedal.

The second modification: So when I decided to start messing around with pedal mods last September, I started with my other Dano, which was sounding duller and duller over the years. I bought a kit from Monte Allums, the Tri-Gain TNT mod. The Dano now sounds much better than it did, although I never use it anymore for other reasons, mainly because it, too, is unbypassed. Just writing about this makes me realize that it is probably time to learn how to bypass a Dano pedal. Anyway, I took no pictures of either of these modifications, but here's someone else's modded Dano. Mine looks much the same.

buffer board
The third, fourth, and fifth projects were in mid October of last year. After reading about the importance of buffering a long pedal chain, I bought a pre-printed buffer board from General Guitar Gadgets (on the left) and a bunch of components from Pedal Parts Plus. With the board I built my first handmade pedal, a buffer, which is shown at right. I let my kids decorate it with me. It has an utterly superfluous 3PDT true-bypass switch, which it doesn't need because it is an always-on pedal. At the same time, I pulled out the old legacy switch from my MXR Distortion + and replaced it with a 3PDT switch for true-bypass. I also added in jumpers around the input resistors in my Boomerang because it had gotten quite hissy over time.

I built a pedalboard out of an old suitcase around the same time, so my pedal rig as of October 18, 2011 looked like the following picture. Note that I had added a few other pedals over time: a Boss CS-3 compressor/sustainer, a Barber Direct Drive overdrive pedal, an Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy analogy delay pedal, and an ultra-shitty autowah that came with a bass I bought from Eastwood Guitars.

This is where I'll leave my story today. Next time: I mod out the CS-3 and build three Fuzz Faces!


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Cary, NC, United States
reachable at firstname lastname (all run together) at gmail dot com

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