INTERVIEW: Jack Johnson

Jack_Johnson_From_Here_to_Now_to_YouJack Johnson is primarily known for his laid back, intimate acoustic-based folky, rocky, breezy sound. He helped to kickstart a whole new generation of dudes who take guitars to the beach. But he’s also a devoted student of the electric guitar, and it should not have come as a surprise when he picked up various electrics – Telecasters, semi-hollow Gibsons – for 2008’s Sleep Through The Static and 2010’s To The Sea. Both albums could simply be seen as new angles on a sound and style he’d previously established. But the acoustic guitar is a seductive temptress, and she’s lured Johnson back to her earthy embrace on his latest album, From Here to Now to You. Produced by Mario Caldato Jr., who Johnson worked with while recording his most successful album In Between Dreams, it offers a sound that’s at once familiar and exotic, with lush instrumentation augmenting steel-string and nylon-string guitars. Read More …

REVIEW: Cole Clark Hollow Baby

The Cole Clark Guardian is something of an Aussie guitar classic. Obvious nods to 50-something years of guitar history notwithstanding, it’s the little details that have made this guitar stand out from others in the field. Now Cole Clark is releasing the Hollow Baby, a variant of the Guardian which features, yes, an internally carved hollow body with a classy bass-side f-hole. I was lucky enough to get my hands on two Hollow Baby models.

Components include CTS pots, Switchcraft jacks, OAK switches, Dunlop frets, Graphtech nut, Grover vintage tuners and Elixir strings. The tremolo is a two point system (more stable than a vintage six-screw version) with push-fit arm, featuring a machined solid steel sustain block rather than a sintered steel sustain block. Wood options are Bunya or Queensland Maple for the body, maple or blackwood for the neck, and maple or rosewood for the fretboard. The finish is nitrocellulose lacquer, allowing the wood to breathe and opening up the tone that little bit more. There are three pickup types on offer: Seymour Duncan USA Vintage Flat SSL-2; Kinman Zero Hum ‘Blues’ Set; and Cole Clark ‘Ultrasound’ (w reverse bridge pickup). The latter, which I was unable to test at the time of review, has a reverse-oriented bridge pickup to pick up more treble from the bass strings while reigning in the high end of the treble strings. But whichever model you choose, each has its own character and is suited to a slightly different vibe. It’s also interesting to note that Cole Clark has chosen pickups with a flat pole piece stagger to suit the flatter 12” neck radii.

And what a neck. This flatter shape is ideal for extended playing sessions and chording, and is also great for faster styles. A more rounded radius may allow you to grip the notes a little more firmly but many players prefer the extra finesse that can be added with flatter designs. You also have far less chance of fretting out a note when you bend it. In all honesty, as someone who’s collected 80s-style shred guitars for half my life, I was very comfortable with this neck, and personally I’d love to see it on a two-pickup Guardian with a bridge humbucker, neck single coil, no scratchplate and a Floyd Rose – y’know, a stripped back screamer. The neck is topped off with Cole Clark’s iconic ‘Curlicue’ scroll-topped headstock shape, which recalls – without actually copying – the 1940s and 50s work of guitar pioneer Paul Bigsby. Fretwork is perfect, with no rough edges or file marks to offend the eye or hand.

The first thing you may think when you pick up one of these Hollow Babies is ‘Well, I’m pretty sure I can guess how this is gonna sound.’ After all, while there are many key differences, it shares some common traits with a pretty well-known axe. But, as they say in David Lee Roth videos, ‘Fugeddaboutit.’ Any preconceived notions you may have about the tone of these instruments will be immediately dispelled upon picking the first note. Even unplugged you’ll notice that you simply can’t judge the Hollow Baby on what you know about other guitars that look somewhat like it. The acoustic tone is lively and midrange-heavy, with restrained treble and round bass – pretty much the opposite of the tone you’d expect from a solidbody version of this design.

Plugged in, the difference is even more pronounced. We were loaned two Hollow Babies to review: one in two-tone sunburst with Seymour Duncan Vintage Flat SSL-2 pickups and one in black with the Kinman Zero Hum ‘Blues’ Set.


The black Hollow Baby, equipped with Aussie-made Kinman pickups, actually sounds a lot brighter than the unplugged tone may indicate, and there’s not much bass – at least, not of the booming, overbearing variety. This clears the lower frequency range to make complex close-voiced chords ring clearly and without extraneous dissonance. My favourite pickup setting was the neck/middle combination, which had a steely treble and reduced midrange, but with all the sonic benefits of the hollow construction: extended dynamic range and a certain liveliness to the note.
Regardless of the pickup setting you select, the attack is very immediate and the sustain is quite pronounced, with a nice natural tail.

One of my favourite tones was achieved by turning the bridge/middle tone control all the way down. While this would muddy up the sound on most guitars, on this one it simply reigns in some of the strident treble, fattening up the pickup for big lead sounds. A lot of players tend to ignore the tone control altogether but here it’s so carefully and complementarily voiced that it would be a crime against music to not explore its usability.

My favourite settings all seemed to be achieved with sparkly clean and slightly dirty – but not overdriven or distorted – tones. There comes a point where the very things that make the Hollow Baby work so well – evolving midrange, lively dynamic response and delicate interactivity – start to work against it when you pile on the distortion. That’s in no way a criticism of the guitar. It’s just that it’s presented in its best light when you can actually hear what’s going on.


The first thing that struck me about these pickups was that they are very quiet. At high gain levels you’ll hear a kind of ‘ksssh’ off in the background in positions 1, 3 and 5, but only in extreme cases. In normal playing conditions you’re not likely to hear any noise at all. Amazing. Like the Kinman-equipped Hollow Baby, the Seymour Duncan version has a very bright and stabby tone, but this time the tone control doesn’t cool down the bridge pickup in quite the same way. The tone overall is a bit more gutsy, with powerful but not harsh treble. My favourite setting was the neck pickup by itself. This pickup is very midrange-heavy, making it great for bluesy solos and ringing indie melodies. It’s especially happy when you combine fretted notes with open string drones. I was also continually drawn to the middle pickup, which was home to a lot of fat lead tones. In fact, the middle pickup on this guitar reminds me of a fat bridge pickup on some others. I also found a great overdriven tone with the middle/bridge tone control down about 3/4 of the way while using those two pickups in combination.

This Hollow Baby responds especially well to soft playing, either with a pick or the fingers. Notes have an immediate impact but then fade out gradually and musically. You can also get some great textures by picking with the edge of your thumbnail around the 12th fret while holding down chords around the 7th-9th frets. On some guitars this technique sounds a little ‘meh,’ while others really take the sound and run with it. This one bolts.

Surprisingly, I found myself drawn to this particular Hollow Baby for John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth style fusion. There’s something about the way the notes sustain which lends itself to that kind of ‘fast/slow, soft/loud, up/down’ phrasing you often find in fusion, and the tone itself sits very nicely as a solo instrument.

Both of these guitars are very well made, with lots of clever little design details – the fretboard radius, the wiring of the tone controls, the pickup selection, the neatness of the f-hole. The different pickup choices are a great way of demonstrating how adaptable this basis design is to different types of music. The Kinman-loaded model would be my choice for country and cleaner styles that require lots of spank and twang, while the Seymour Duncan model would be my pick for edgy blues and dirty classic rock. I wish I had the chance to try the Cole Clark-loaded version too, but whichever way you shake it, Cole Clark’s come up with a very unique take on what at first seems to be a traditional design. Strip away the preconceptions though and you end up with something altogether unprecedented.

REVIEW: Cole Clark Culprit 3

I’ve reviewed a few excellent Cole Clark acoustics and electrics over the years (like this Guardian, for instance), but when I opened up the case for this baby I was pretty gobsmacked. It combines several of my favourite things: that classy body shape, a cool semi-hollow body, classic wood tones that manage to avoid looking like your aunty’s coffee table, and that awesome headstock: definitely Paul Bigsby-inspired, but still distinctly Cole Clark. The design philosophy behind this one is to use Australian woods, so you have your choice of Bunya or Queensland Maple for the body (with a Blackwood cap), Blackwood or US Rock Maple for the neck, and Rosewood or US Rock Maple for the fretboard.

The body is internally carved rather than simply gluing in a solid centre block: the bridge, the neck pickup and the neck itself are all directly connected to the back and sides for enhanced sustain and resonance, while sound chambers allow the sound to swirl around within the body, picking up additional reflections and frequencies before throwing them out of the modified f-hole. It’s a very cool effect when unplugged, and those extra resonances definitely play a role in making the amplified voice morestrident and distinctive. Translation: It sounds really cool. The fretboard radius is a finger-friendly 12” (Ibanez players like me will be quite comfortable with this feel), and the neck is comfortable without being too fat or too thin.

The Culprit 3 uses a pair of Cole Clark’s own Culprit single coil pickups, which are wired into a 4-way switch instead of the more traditional 3-way. Position 1 is the bridge pickup; position 2 puts the bridge and neck in parallel for that classic open, jangly vibe; position 3 is the neck pickup, and position 4 combines both pickups in series for a monster high output sound which is sure to make your amp sweat a little.

I tested the Culprit through my Marshall DSL50 and a Peavey Windsor Studio. Through the Marshall’s clean channel, this guitar was a punchy, powerful chord monster, while adding some compression courtesy of an MXR Dyna Comp and a little slapback analog delay made for a great country pickin’ tone, prompting me to kinda slip into my Junior Brown impersonation for a while. Then I pushed the Marshall’s ‘Crunch’ button for a more chunky, bright attack, and it’s at this point, ladies and gentlemen, that I gave in to my weakness and took a shameful jump into Jimmy Page’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ solo. Being single coils, there’s a limit to how much gain you can pile on before things start to get a bit noisy, but why anyone would buy a guitar like this and try to pile its natural character under gobs of gain is beyond my comprehension. So if you hang back a little and listen to the guitar, and respect what it has to say, you can still find your way into some killer rock sounds that don’t need to sound like your guitar is gargling garbage-water.

Through the Peavey, the Culprit had a more jangly, indie vibe, and I couldn’t help hooking up a vibrato effect for a few faux Clientele chord extravaganzas (played fingerstyle for added authenticity, of course). I also found that through the Peavey I gravitated towards old school soul and R&B riffs of the Curtis Mayfield variety. A little analog delay in the effects loop and a flip over to that high output fourth setting added a swampy blues vibe that I could have stayed on all day.

This is a very cool guitar for a variety of styles, from clean country and indie to swampy blues, to dirty, filthy rock. The construction quality is excellent and while there are a few hints as to its inspirations, it’s unmistakably an original design.

REVIEW: Cole Clark Guardian

Cole Clark guitars are made in Melbourne, Australia and the list of artists who have used them over the years includes Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Belle And Sebastian, Snow Patrol, Kaiser Chiefs and the John Butler Trio. Their acoustics are especially well known, but today I’m looking at one of their electrics. Cole Clark guitars are available internationally now. To find one near you check out the dealer list here.

The vaguely 70s shaped headstock is capped with a violin style scroll on the front and back, which immediately gives the guitar a kind of organic feel. The maple neck features 22 frets instead of the standard 21, and the truss rod adjustment screw, which in this case is located at the base of the neck, a notoriously hard access location, is easily accessed through a small cavity in the pickguard. No longer must techs be forced to remove the neck to make an adjustment, pop in back on, see if they’ve tweaked it the right amount, then have to take the neck off and start again if they didn’t quite get it.

Speaking of three ply white/black/white pickguard, the Cole Clark logo is etched into it down to the black layer. Of course this serves no practical purpose but it looks damn cool and reminds me of several European brands who print the company name on the guitar body.

Of course, this particular design wouldn’t be complete without a trio of single coils. Sure, hundreds of companies have tried adding humbuckers, removing the middle pickup, even whacking in some P90s, but nothing beats the vibe of the original design. The pickups in the Guardian are a new model called the Divorce which are overwound to tap into that classic Texas Stevie Ray Vaughan vibe.

I tested the Guardian by plugging it in to the amazing Rex Bassking valve amp with a single 12 inch Celestion Speaker, and a Digitech Bad Monkey overdrive pedal. Having been on a Stevie Ray Vaughan kick the previous day, I switched right to the neck pickup to crank out the intro to “Texas Flood.” The resulting tone was mellow and smooth but with just enough edge for raw blues rock. Increasing the gain a little yielded a more compressed rock solo tone with heaps of characteristic Strattishness. I’d go so far as to say that if you’re into Iron Maiden you could coax pretty impressive neck pickup soloing tones out of this bad boy.

The middle pickup is great for Hendrix licks and riffs. I couldn’t resist playing my old standby, “Little Wing,” to test how the middle pickup sounded on a clean tone across the neck, before stomping on the overdrive to give Voodoo Chile a good solid workout. The middle pickup has a medium amount of top end and a rounded midrange. If you could plug velvet into a guitar amp, this is what it would sound like.

The bridge pickup has an exaggerated treble, cutting through loud and clear with a bell-like clarity. The output is pretty hot, and the tones bristle with pick attack and that Stratlike springiness. This guitar is a blues machine, pure and simple, and the neck is extremely playable, especially when executing multi-string bends or SRV style rapid fire open string licks.

In the neck-plus-middle and bridge-plus-middle pickup selections, the Guardian is all jangle and sparkle, and while some guitars take on an almost acoustic vibe in this setting, the Guardian never lets you forget you’re playing an electric guitar. The tones remain lively and edgy, and if, like SRV, you tend to ride the pickup selector and the volume and tone controls while you play, you’ll find a huge variety of tones at your fingertips.

The Cole Clark Guardian is a great reinterpretation of the classic theme, and the new pickups give it a unique voice that would be otherwise hard to attain without forking out megabucks on the vintage market to find just the right overwound original pickups. With such tonal flexibility it’s also a guitar that begs to be let loose in the recording studio, where it can cover rhythm and lead duties with the flick of a switch. The playability upgrades compared to the 50s original, such as a flatter fretboard radius and comfortable neck profile, make this guitar a hot rodded blues axe that would also be right at home with more progressive styles.


REVIEW: Rex Bassking

The story of the Rex Bassking sounds like a legend, or at the very least a Da Vinci Code style tale of investigation, serendipity and discovery. The amp’s origins lie in the 1930s when the late Frank Lamberti arrived in Australia from Italy. Working at the Astor radio factory in Melbourne, where he assembled valve radios and communication equipment for the Australian military, Mr Lamberti transferred these skills to his own company in 1946 when he teamed up with his brother Anthony to form Lamberti Bros. The company’s North Melbourne workshop began producing valve radiograms, televisions and a range of guitar amplifiers beginning with a 6 watt amp released under the Rex brand name.

The company continued to make amps over the next 15 years, ranging from the original 6 watt designs to 50 watts. But rising labour costs led to the difficult decision to cease production in 1974. But before the doors were closed, Frank had his small team, working under the name of General Music Company, manufacture a final run of 100 the 20 watt Bassking amps, with an improved design. But these amps were never sold, and remained left in their shelves until they were discovered by Frank’s children after his passing in 1996. They resolved to release the amps in memory of their dad, and over the past two years, Frank’s son Joe has worked with one of his father’s original technicians to fine tune the design to be more guitarist friendly. Joe explains. “Originally dad designed the Bassking as a versatile amp which could be used for guitar, bass or keyboard. Dad started off as a radio technician. He couldn’t play guitar and simply tested his amps striking open strings. His aim was to amplify without distortion. Nevertheless, he designed some great amps and I’m sure he would be more than pleased with what we’ve done with his last 100.”

So this brings us to today. The Bassking is a simple but undeniably classy looking combo. The review model was finished in vintage red vinyl which was found in the workshop along with the amps. The two channels, Bass and Normal, each have their own dedicated pair of inputs, and controls for volume, bass and treble. A Celestion G12H twelve inch speaker has been fitted as part of the redesign. High quality electrolytic capacitors have been fitted, and matched valves from Electro Harmonix form the heart of the amp’s power and tone. The Bassking is driven by two 12AX7EH valves in the preamp and two EL84EH valves in the power section. There’s a jack on the back panel for an additional speaker cabinet, and I would love to see a matching extension cabinet built in the same cosmetic style.

I first plugged into the Bassking’s Bass channel with a Cole Clark Guardian. The tone was extremely clear and warm, with a tight yet thick low end and a rounded high end. Nudging up the treble control added a little bit of musical sharpness to the signal, and plugging in my Telecaster I was immediately reminded of blues legend Albert Collins’s famous “icy” tone – clean, loud, sharp, expressive and musical. Bringing down the treble again, this channel was great for jazz lead lines and chords, and its high headroom ensured there was no distortion to muddy up the purity of the tone.

The Normal channel has a similar basic character to the Bass channel, but the low end is more subdued, the highs are glassier, and the midrange is a little thinner, resulting in an almost acoustic guitar style shimmer to chords and double stops. With a little experimenting, I managed to coax an authentic recreation of Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans Of Swing” tone from the Cole Clark, while slightly edgy blues tones were also on tap in an almost Steve Ray Vaughan vibe. I then tried the amp with a DigiTech Bad Monkey overdrive pedal to see how the circuit and speaker handled dirtier tones. Again the sound reminded me of Stevie Ray, this time his slightly edgier tone from “Pride & Joy.” The absence of a midrange control on the amp didn’t prevent it from exhibiting a perfectly voiced midrange to fill out the pedal’s tone, and the combination of a particularly responsive overdrive pedal, playing dynamics and the Bassking’s great preamp meant changes in phrasing were reproduced with expressive accuracy. It’s great to plug into an amp that doesn’t just compress and distort every note, and by carefully choosing how hard you pick any particular sound, you can get a huge variety of sounds without even touching the tone controls.

In the 1960s a lot of amps, such as the Marshall Super Lead, had two channels with twin separate inputs like the Bassking, and players soon discovered that running a small patch cord between the inputs of the two channels allowed them both to be used at the same time. I set the Bassking up in this way, and the resulting tone was amazing. There was a pleasing natural compression, and the tone fattened up considerably. The ability to set separate bass and treble frequencies for each channel, then blend the volumes of each for the perfect mix, allowed me to create a thick and deep tone that still had huge amounts of treble. This sound would be particularly useful to bands with only one guitarist, because it allows you to stake out a huge amount of sonic real estate.

The 20 watt Rex Bassking is the great lost amp of Australian music history, and you can hear the history and heritage with every note. It’s fun to play, looks great and is built to a very high quality standard. It’s bound to be an Australian classic and I can’t see the limited edition run of 100 lasting long in stores before being snapped up by boutique amp collectors and blues and jazz guitarists.

POWER: 20 watts
ELECTRONICS: Bass and Normal channels, 2 12AX7EH preamp valves, 2 EL84EH power valves.
SPEAKER: Celestion G12H

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FEATURE: A Beginner’s Guide To Pickups

For something so simple – a bunch of wire wrapped around a magnet – pickups can have a huge impact on your sound. Unlike, say, a pedal, amp or pick, it’s not really possible to try out a pickup within your existing rig. Variances in guitar scale length, construction, shape and material mean the same pickup will perform differently from guitar to guitar, so what works in a Telecaster may not work in a Les Paul and vice versa.

Essentially, a pickup is made up of a magnet and insulated copper wire. It’s the stuff of high school science: the magnet magnetises the strings, creating a flux field. When the string is struck, the vibration affects the flux field, creating an alternating current within the coils of wire. This signal is then sent to the amp, and a whole new set of techy stuff happens.

The interesting, and often confusing thing about pickup construction, is that different types of magnet and different gauges of wire have different sonic characteristics. The size of the pickup also has an effect. The thinner the pickup, the thinner the sound. This is why single coil sized versions of humbuckers don’t sound quite the same – they’re picking up the vibration of a smaller area of string.

Pickups are typically made of one of two types of magnet – Alnico or ceramic. Alnico is shorthand for “Aluminium, Nickel, Cobalt”, and is an alloy which has a softer magnetic field, and thus less pull against the strings. Alnico pickups are often associated with ‘spongier’ tones, and players such as Slash. (By the way, I know it’s technically correct, but the spelling of ‘spongier’ just looks wrong. Perhaps it should be spelled ‘spunge-ier’ or something. Anyway…) There are varying grades of Alnico magnet, each of which has its own sonic signature.

Ceramic magnets are a combination of magnetic iron and rare earth materials which are pressed into bars under pressure and heat. They’re typically used in hotter sounding pickups with more distortion and harmonic content, such as the Dimarzio Evolution, or to beef up single coil sized humbuckers.

When it comes to the wire coil, several factors influence the sound, including the number of turns, the pattern used – is it just wrapped around uniformly or criss-crossed? – and the thickness of the wire. Australian guitar commpany Cole Clark has recently released a series of pickups using Formvar wire, which has its own sonic signature and was used on early Fender pickups. Matching the number of turns with a specific gauge allows the pickup designer to emphasise high end, low end or midrange to the point where specific frequencies can be ‘goosed’ in a similar way to setting a wah pedal in a notch position. Pickups with this effect include the Dimarzio FRED and Tone Zone. The gauge of wire and the amount and style of turns have an effect on the pickup’s DC current resistance. The higher the resistance, the lower the treble response and the higher the output. A pickup’s impedance also affects the frequency, and can be tuned to certain frequencies to further emphasise upper mids or high end.

A pickup’s pole pieces also have an effect on the tone. The size, material and height of each pole piece can impose its own sonic signature. Seymour Duncan’s Quarter Pounder pickups use oversized pole pieces to read a wider range of string space without having to beef up the whole pickup to humbucker size.

Which brings us to single coils versus humbuckers. Essentially, a humbucker consists of two single coils wired in series, but one uses a magnet of opposing polarity to the other. The hum characteristics of one coil are cancelled out by the other, hence the term ‘humbucker’. On more modern Strat style designs, the middle pickup is reverse winding and reverse polarity so it cancels hum when combined with the neck or bridge pickup.

Humbuckers tend to sound thicker and louder than single coils, but just to complicate things, they can be ‘tuned’ to sound more like a Strat style single coil (Dimarzio’s Humbucker from Hell) or a Gibson-style P-90 (Seymour Duncan’s Phat Cat).

CD REVIEW: Adam Miller – Out of My Hands

Adam Miller is an Australian acoustic guitarist who has performed with Les Paul, Tommy Emmanuel and Charlie Hunter, and holy crap, this CD is some funky stuff. Opening track ‘Day Gig’ leaps straight out of the speakers and goes for the throat with complex yet always in-the-pocket acoustic mastery. It sounds cruisy and laid back, yet demonstrates an unexpectedly high level of technique.

Track 2, ‘Traffic,’ would work equally well as an electric rock song, but as an acoustic track it comes across as bluesy, soulful and groovy. There’s an earthy honestness about the playing, whether Miller is blasting out a speedy hammer-on lick or locking in with the band for an unstoppable funk grove. It’s that kind of alternating rhythm/lead playing that Stevie Ray Vaughan was so great at.

The mood cools down a little on the third track, ‘Straight Forward,’ with a cool ascending bassline and bluesy rhythm fills before taking off on a harmonized melody which reminds me of Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow, recontextualized as an acoustic album.

Track 4 shows the first signs of slowing down, with the tender ‘Finding Home.’ Again Miller gets great mileage out of combining melody and chordal accompaniment. The mood stays quiet for the ethereal ‘Rushing In,’ before things get funky yet spacious on ‘Dinosaurs.’ ‘Out Of My Hands’ hits hyperspeed with fast hammer-on/pull-of licks and a level of energy not often heard in acoustic music. ‘Holding Hearts’ returns to the cool bass and brushed drums of ‘Finding Home,’ and ‘Frankie’ is a quiet guitar/piano duet which reminds me of ‘Follow One Hope’ from Eric Johnson’s ‘Venus Isle’ album.

The CD wraps up with ‘All I Need,’ which suddenly breaks into a tasty, Tommy Emmanuel-like electric guitar solo, with a warm buttery tone and upbeat melodies. It’s a very unpredictable ending to the album, but it works very well.

Miller plays his Cole Clark Angel acoustic guitar on all tracks, and the guitar is always presented clearly and cleanly in the mix. You can hear every little string noise, every finger scrape, like the band is playing right in your living room.