12 Picks of the Day

Strings and Keys

I’ve been playing guitar since I was 15 and now have a total of three guitars, each special to me in its own way.

My oldest is a Peavey Limited Edition EXP HSS, with a dark turquoise-black-burst quilted top, piano black back/neck/headstock, rosewood fingerboard and a Hipshot Ultra Glide tremolo bridge. Along with it, I got it my first amp — the awesome little Line 6 “MicroSpider” practice amp — and a Morley Pro Series Wah pedal.

I didn’t receive any actual guitar training until later on, so this is the rig I used to teach myself to play. I would often prowl YouTube for “how-to” covers and lessons on my favorite songs. Then, later in high school, I took a guitar class which — while it mainly focused on acoustic guitar — taught me things like chords, arpeggios, and finger-picking, which are all invaluable skills on the electric guitar as well.

Around the time I was touring colleges, early in 2010, I got my second guitar — a Samick (Valley Arts Custom Pro Shop) Telecaster that has a beautiful clear butterscotch finish over the natural solid ash body, a natural maple neck/headstock, and a warm-sounding rosewood fingerboard. On arrival, this “project” guitar came unstrung and partially-disassembled (by the original owner, so the guitar body could be refinished).

To put the instrument back in working order, the original pickups and electronics had to be reinstalled, new strings were added, and then “set up” with the intonation and action I prefer. So I took it to the incredible Henry Howard, a guitar quality control and set-up expert with literally decades of experience in the industry, including touring in a popular tribute band. Henry’s relocated to the Carolinas now — if you’re ever down that way and need a go-to guitar guy, check him out.

After Henry set up the guitar for me, I started taking lessons with him. It was really great, because I was mostly self-taught up to that point. While I’m not sure “formal” is the best word to describe these lessons, he did show me how much I really didn’t know about guitar, and his teaching style was perfect for me. For example, he taught me a few quick and easy scales which helped me write solos for my own songs.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, all those years of piano lessons my mother insisted on really helped as my guitar playing progressed. Not only that, but now, with my Suzuki digital piano and a USB MIDI interface, I’ve been able to compose scores for some of my films.

Along the way, I also acquired what must be the coolest device ever — the JamVOX from VOX Amps.

It’s a small (but as loud as you could possibly want, unless you’re gigging) USB-port-driven practice amp and software combo that lets you dial up a huge selection of effects (pedals), amps, and cabinets models, plus a function that allows you to extract the guitar track from a song, so you can jam along in place of your favorite guitarist. The JamVOX combines legendary VOX modeling technology — surprisingly authentic-sounding models for dozens of iconic effects, amps and cabinets in an almost infinite number of virtual rigs (think, “Give me an Ibanez Tube Screamer, a little tape delay and some spring reverb, and run it through a Mesa Boogie head with a Marshall 4×12 cabinet”) — with a built-in multi-track mixing desk and a digital recording studio, all on my computer!

It also came with a CD of “pre-set” tone models for 30 classic rock songs, plus online access to the library of tones created by the JamVOX user community, which can be downloaded, saved, tweaked and re-used anytime.

During my sophomore year at LMU, I got a third guitar; a gorgeous Fender “Blacktop” Stratocaster in vintage “Sonic Blue,” with a natural maple neck, headstock and fingerboard.  She’s a BEAUTY!

What really sets the Blacktop Strat apart from “ordinary” Strats is its pair of vintage-tone, over-wound, high-gain (HOT!) humbucking pickups.

Pickups use magnets wound with copper wire to “pick up” the vibrations of (steel) guitar strings and convert them into electrical signals that your amp, in turn, converts back into sound … or, when you want, SOUND!  And, all other things being equal, the quality and purity of the tone you ultimately hear through the amp really does depend on type and quality of your pickups.

Most single-coil pickups tend to produce the bright, clear, even “twangy” guitar sounds most often associated with blues and country, as well as the high-gain lead guitar tones in many of rock’s greatest solos. Humbuckers produce the “thicker,” heavier, more aggressive rhythm guitar sounds heard in hard rock, metal, grunge, as well as the “warmer” tones of jazz and blues.

My first two guitars each have the one-humbucking, plus two-single-coil (HSS) configuration, offering lots of versatility (a wide range of tones), everything from bright/clean jazzy sounds to rock leads, but not as much punch as the classic Gibson dual-humbucking (ex: Les Paul) setup.  My Blacktop is the only guitar in my collection with dual humbuckers (HH) — giving it a much “deeper” voice than a typical Strat, with all the growl and crunch one gets from a Gibson-style guitar — combined with enough “gain” to power through screaming leads you can hear over the mix.

This is a particularly interesting setup for a Fender Strat — the guitar that made the three-single-coil configuration a worldwide institution. But, because of its unique 5-way switching circuitry that allow the humbuckers to be combined or “split” in various ways, my Blacktop allows me to “impersonate” classic Gibson Les Paul-type humbucker sounds, as well as traditional “Fender” Strat & Tele single-coil sounds — with a simple flip of a switch. And, did I mention she’s a BEAUTY?

Finally, this guitar roundup wouldn’t be complete without at least mentioning my pick (yes!) collection.

Some of them are just for fun, like my Godfather, Spiderman, and Friday the 13th series. But some of them are special for their uniqueness, in feel and sound, like the V-Picks. Most V-Picks are designed to have better grips than typical picks and the thicker ones are great for playing pinch harmonics (making the guitar “squeal”).  v-picks.com

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