REVIEW: Ernie Ball Colbalt strings

Ernie Ball’s new Cobalt string series was introduced at the NAMM Show this year – coinciding with the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations (which included a huge concert featuring Paul Gilbert, Steve Morse, Albert Lee, Randy Jackson, Joe Bonamassa, Blues Saraceno and Steve Vai – who even donned a Gibson Les Paul for some Zeppelin jammage). The Cobalts are one of two string sets unveiled at NAMM this year, the other being the Everlast acoustic strings, which use a breakthrough nanotreatment to enhance the metal surface so it repels moisture and oils. This treatment is a thousand times thinner than any other coating on the market, and it’s available in 80/20 and Phosphor Bronze alloys, in all popular gauges.

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REVIEW: Pickbay

Back in 1997, Steve Vai toured Australia for the first time. By a stroke of luck I managed to acquire one of his picks (my brother Steve reached up and plucked it from the headstock of Vai’s guitar during ‘The Animal’ – in 2004 I returned the favour when I caught one of Billy Sheehan’s bass picks and giving it to Steve). Anyway, I loved this pick and I wanted to keep it with me as a sort of shred good luck charm. I took it to a jewelry store and had them drill a tiny hole into it and affix a little metal ‘O’ so I could attach it to a chain. A rather inelegant solution which, let’s face it, defaced the pick a little bit in an irreversible way.

If only Pickbay existed then! I wouldn’t have had to drill a big hole through my prized Vai pick! Pickbay is a pick-shaped pendant which proudly displays the guitar pick of your choice, along a few more depending on the gauge you use. It serves a dual purpose of cool fashion accessory for guitarists as well as a handy way of ensuring you’re never without a pick within easy reach. You can slot up to four picks in there (less if you use chunkier gauges like I do), and they’re pretty easy to get out when you need a pick in an emergency.

There are various models available, including a natural eco-brass version, as well as chrome, Gold-N (shiny brass that looks like gold without the price) and sterling silver. The colours seem quite cleverly chosen to work nicely with guitar hardware – the gold would go great with my Ibanez Jem, while the chrome would like awesome alongside my UV777BK 7-string. When you order your Pickbay you can also choose from various chains. I like the way the nickel-plated ball chain is described on Pickbay’s site: “Resizable 24″ max length nickel ball chain is our low-cost solution to getting you in one of our 925 sterling silver pendants without forcing you to eat only Ramen noodles for two weeks.”

I think Pickbay would make a cool gift for guitarists (certainly better than my last minute gift ideas back in December), or a neat merchandising idea for bands. Plus, if you’re like me, you probably just dig having a little visual thing that tells people “Yeah, I’m a guitarist – as if you couldn’t already tell by looking at me.”

LINK: Pickbay

Thanks to Pickbay for turning me onto this little slice of awesome.

I Heart Guitar pick courtesy of Grover Allman.

 

REVIEW: Randall KH120RHS

Metallica’s Kirk Hammett has been using a signature Randall head based on the company’s MTS platform (with interchangable tube preamp modules) for a few years now. While it’s a very useful and toneful product, there are a few little setbacks in getting MTS to the masses, the most difficult being cost. That’s where the KH120RHS comes in. KH120RHS is the overall name for a package which comprises the KH-120RH head and the KH414 Celestion Rocket 40-loaded 4X12 speaker cabinet. The 120-watt solid state amp head is designed to funnel the basic tone of Kirk’s might higher-priced (and physically much heavier – good lord, you tried to lift one of those things?) amp into a unit that the average metalhead can most likely afford after spending a summer slinging burgers (like Kirk famously did to buy his early gear in his teens).

Starting at the input to the far left and heading right, controls are Gain 1, a Gain Select button, Gain 2, Bass, Middle, Contour, Treble, Volume [Overdrive channel], a Channel Select button, then Bass; Middle; Treble; Volume [Clean channel], Master Volume and (spring) Reverb Level. Next there’s a headphone jack – yes, a headphone jack on an amp head – and the single power button. (One little niggle I have about this amp is that the chickenhead knobs are a little too close together and it can be quite easy to accidentally turn one while you’re twisting another). Around the back we have speaker jacks, a fuse, a series effect loop, footswitch jack and an auxiliary input for connecting your CD player or iPod.

I tested the KH-120 with the ballsiest metal guitar in my arsenal: an Ibanez RG7620 seven-string with DiMarzio Crunch Lab and LiquiFire pickups. First I tested the clean tone. Here you’ll find just the kind of dry, cold, sterile (in a good way) clean tone needed for classic Metallitracks like ‘One’ and, with a bit of chorus and delay, ‘Enter Sandman.’ This is not the kind of clean channel that you can nudge into a bluesy snarl or a warm overdrive: rather it’s a clean-as-clean-can-be place to go to when you need to set the audience up for the ensuing hailstorm of metal fury you’re about to unleash (see: ‘Blackened’). This same quality makes it a great platform for adding effects, and I found it to be especially handy for unobtrusively allowing my fuzz pedal to do its filthy thing.

At its lowest gain setting, the overdrive channel barks out that ‘intro to St Anger’ punchy dirt sound – which is also great for Meshuggah tones at the lower reaches of my 7-string. Turn the gain up around midway and you’ll find approximations of the classic ‘Black Album’ era tone. Actually, scratch that: it reminds me more of Kirk and James’s live sound from that era, so if you’re like me and you’ve spent many hours pouring over bootlegs and official releases from that period of the band’s history, you’ll feel right at home blasting out ‘Wherever I May Roam’ or the cool droney bits from the verses to ‘The Unfogiven.’ Keep the mids around halfway for that ‘black’ magic, or roll them down for some harsher ‘…And Justice For All’ mojo. Crank ‘em for more of a ‘Death Magnetic’ vibe. It’s not just a Metallica-maker though – the tones and range of gain will suit pretty much any type of metal you throw at it, from vintage to extreme.

The KH-120′s also good for lead tones. For instance you can get somewhere in the vicinity of that ‘Fade To Black’ wah-aided singing lead tone by coaxing the treble down while boosting the mids and gain. But unless you’re happy to set the twin gain controls for all-out distorto overkill and a more reigned back version of the same voicing, you might find yourself having to compromise between the perfect lead tone and the ideal rhythm one. A third channel would obviously have rectified this, but that would come at a price which may push the amp out of the price bracket of those would most stand to benefit from it. Unfortunately that’s going to limit the KH-120′s appeal somewhat for lead players, which is ironic given that Kirk is more known for his soloing than his rhythm playing.

I think it’s important to say that if you can stretch your budget to the full-spec tube-driven MTS-based Randall Kirk Hammett stack, you probably should do so – certainly if you require distinct rhythm and lead distortion tones. The KH-120 is capable of very usable lead tones and some pretty spectacular rhythm sounds, and it’s not a bad amp by any stretch of the imagination, but you’ll get more bang for your buck – not to mention more depth of tone, more responsiveness and far greater bragging rights – by shelling out for its big brother if you’re able to. If not, you still know that with the KH-120 you’re getting Kirk-approved Metallitone in an amp that’s pretty unique and voiced to sound as authentic as its solid state design will allow.

LINK: Randall

 

REVIEW: EMG-ACS

EMG are rightfully known for their revolutionary active pickups for electric guitar, which are used by players as diverse as David Gilmour, Steve Lukather, Reb Beach, Zakk Wylde and James Hetfield, so it makes sense that they apply their active technology to acoustic pickups too. Active pickups have characteristically high headroom, which is especially handy for maintaining the fidelity of a clean guitar.

I mounted the ACS in a mid-level dreadnaught acoustic guitar. Installation is a cinch with EMG’s very popular Qwik-Connect plug-in connectors: secure the battery bag to the neck block, replace your existing strap pin with the supplied Ultrajak strap pin/output jack (drilling a half-inch hole if you need to), run the cable through the body, pop in the pickup and hook the units up – although in my case, since I was just borrowing the ACS for the purposes of review I secured the output jack to the surface of the body so I didn’t have to rout out the strap pin hole. EMG supplies Velcro to secure the wires to the underside of the guitar’s top, and also so that if you need to temporarily remove the pickup for some reason, you can stash the pickup cable out of sight within the body.
The height of the pickup’s pole pieces can be adjusted with a supplied 3/32” Allen wrench to achieve an even volume level from string to string. This is a distinct advantage over other acoustic pickup designs (and microphones), and it also means you don’t have to squash your dynamic range with a compressor just to even out the volume.

With only a single volume control on the pickup itself, this is a very simple system. There’s no particular need for bells and whistles like EQ, limiting, feedback elimination or a tuner.

The first thing I noticed with this pickup was the healthy dose of high end. This is especially good news for fingerpickers who need absolute note definition, and for strummers who need their pick attack to cut through the mix. If the treble is a bit too much, EMG suggests removing some or all of the pole pieces altogether. I like this very practical and straightforward way of customising the response of the pickup, and it feels a bit more ‘real’ than simply attacking the problem with outboard gear.

I kinda wish I had a guitar on hand with a piezo pickup in the bridge too, because a lot of companies now are combining different kinds of pickup in the one acoustic guitar, and it would be interesting to see how the ACS sounds when combined with the timbre of an undersaddle pickup, and to compare the two, because while piezo pickups are typically very high-end-heavy, it’s a different type of treble and attack to that of the ACS. The ACS definitely sounds more natural and realistic, and doesn’t need a whole bunch of processors and controls to do so.

This pickup is a good option for those who want a more natural sound from their acoustic than a piezo can typically provide, and it’s easy to install and customize. It may not sound as authentic as micing your acoustic up in the studio with top-flight microphones, but in terms of stage use, practicality and reproducibility it’s a very attractive option.

REVIEW: ESP LTD EC-256 AHB

Aah, the relicing issue. Not since ‘tone is in the fingers’ has a topic generated such heated debate on guitar forums, in guitar stores and in dimly lit bars after gigs. Whether you like the idea of buying a brand-new bashed up guitar or you think it’s an abomination and an affront to real vintage guitars everywhere, everyone’s got an opinion. One way to look at it is: whether you’re into the look or not, a pre-aged guitar by its very nature has a few features that should make it a little nicer to play in some respects than a pristine off-the-shelfer.

FIGHT THE SIGNS OF AGEING

ESP has had a few goes at offering aged finishes at various price points, including the James Hetfield Iron Cross and Truckster models (the latter of which was available in ESP and LTD versions), the George Lynch’s GL-56 and, most recently, the LTD EC-256 AHB. Based on the company’s Eclipse model, this relatively inexpensive axe is of the classic twin humbucker, set neck, mahogany body variety. It’s given ESP’s own distinctive touches, of course, including subtle curving of the top (instead of all-out carving), a volume-volume-tone control layout, and a sharp cutaway which seems to say “Some of this guitar is traditional, but your grandad never would have played this back in the day.”

The first thing to look at on a guitar like this is the relicing. Does it look authentic like a real beaten up guitar that’s been mishandled or loved on stages up and down the country? Nope. The sanding marks are pretty obvious, and the tri of dings on the treble side of the lower bout look quite contrived. Some rough sanding marks on the headstock look more like scratches from an unfriendly gig bag than a few decades of knocks from a succession of feisty roadies. But that’s all somewhat beside the point, because after a few years of regular use the ‘shininess’ of these manufactured blemishes is likely to be dulled by and intermingled with real-life ones, and it will truly become the dinged up but well-loved instrument that it was designed to look like. The most important thing about the EC-256 for me was that the back of the neck felt comfortably aged and friction-free, which made for a very pleasant playing experience. It’s also worth noting that the thin finish of the top allows the sound to breathe, opening up the treble and adding a little depth to the guitar’s amplified tone.

SO LET’S PLUG IT IN

The EC-256 sounds best with mild overdrive playing relatively dark music (Tool fans take note). It doesn’t seem to want to be a high gain screamer, although the natural tone seems to work really well with lowered tunings. It’s just that the guitar’s natural character is best represented by more subtle distortion levels. There’s a coil split on the tone control which extends the guitar’s personality and adds versatility while maintaining the guitar’s own character. Again, the neck pickup in single coil mode doesn’t really like to be distorted: it’s more at home with some light bluesy overdrive. If you dig the visual vibe and the way it plays but you need gutsier tones, a pickup upgrade might be in order.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Despite the aggressiveness of the cutway, which suggested a heavier musical orientation, I don’t think this is a guitar for those who play blazing solos over metal riffs. It’s much more at home with crunchy rhythm sounds and bluesy double stops. Whether you like the relicing or not is up to you but this is a guitar that will find its fans for what it is, rather than what it tries to be.

REVIEW: Roger Mayer Concorde + Treble Booster

Ok, you’ve got your fuzz, your overdrive, your distortion and your clean boost. That’s all, right? Wrongo. The treble booster is an almost-forgotten member of the distortion family, and without it we wouldn’t have such classic tones as Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid,’ pretty much all of Led Zeppelin 1, and everything Brian May’s ever done. So what’s a treble booster and why is it different to just turning up the treble knob on the amp? Well not quite a fuzz, not quite an EQ, treble boosters were typically based on very simple circuits and they promoted the idea of boosting the strength of the signal to the amp while tailoring its tone curve to attain maximum tonal goodness.
GIMMIE A BOOST

The Concorde +, like the other pedals in Roger Mayer’s Vision Series, has controls for Drive, Tone and Output, a sturdy and stompworthy footswitch, twin buffered outs and a hardwired bypass out, an input, a slidable battery cover and a super-strong casing. The electronics combine a low noise class A silicon drive circuit with passive tone shaping to drive a fully optimised germanium treble booster, allowing you to add drive and distortion with EQ before the actual treble booster section – think of it kind of like two pedals in a signal chain, which you can balance for the perfect interaction.

Mayer notes that you can also set the silicon drive section to drive the treble booster section much harder than any guitar pickup could ever do, without any added distortion but with the added feature of having EQ prior to the treble booster, so you get the qualities of soft germanium type distortion overload characteristics or more radical germanium distortion sounds.

HERE COMES TREBLE
Using an alder-bodied, Bigsby-loaded Ibanez Talman with vintage-output Ibanez Super 58 pickups, I flipped to the neck pickup and unleashed my inner Iommi for some ‘Paranoid.’ With a setting of about 3 o’clock on the Drive control and 2 o’clock on the Tone, there was just enough dirt and grizzle around the notes but still punch and definition on the low end. If you turn up the Drive a bit further you get a fuzzy buzz between the notes which works great for sludgier riffage. There are also some great Jimmy Page tones available. With everything set to the midway point the Concorde + is perfect for ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Communication Breakdown’ – that barky, aggressive tone which begs for you to alternate between muted chugs and chord stabs. Wind back the Drive control a little for a bright, punchy clean tone which begs for heavy gauge strings and single coil country licks.

‘CORDE IN A TRAP
The Concorde + isn’t just for the player who wants to get closer to those classic Page, Iommi and May tones; it’s for the experimentalist seeking new levels of tone control, or anyone looking for a different character to their overdrive and distortion.

Roger Mayer: http://www.roger-mayer.co.uk
Buy Concorde + at GuitarToyz.com.au

REVIEW: Morpheus DropTune

Here’s a dilemma I face pretty much every day. You have your guitar set up to perfection. Perfection for you (well, for me) includes a finely balanced Floyd Rose type system. Problem is, every now and then you wanna jam along with some early Van Halen, Extreme, Yngwie Malmsteen, Jimi Hendrix, Slipknot, Meshuggah… can’t really do that unless you change your tuning, and you simply can’t lower the tuning for a few songs on a Floyd Rose, unless you use a device like the Tremolno to block the trem first, but then you can’t do any awesome whammy bar stuff. What’s the point? So you scrimp and save and buy another guitar with the intention of using that for a lower tuning. But you like the sound of it so much that you decide to keep that one in standard too. Time to start saving again… repeat every time you get into another band with a different degree of downtuning.

Morpheus has come to the rescue with the DropTune, a pedal designed with one thing in mind: to lower the pitch of your guitar while not sounding so darn fake about it. I’m sure we’ve all tried various pitch-shifting devices one time or another to achieve this. If the weird underwater-sounding digital artefacts don’t kill ya straight away, the latency will. But what do you expect: those pedals are typically designed to shift the pitch downwards to recombine with the original note anyway. The DropTune doesn’t aim to be a harmonizer with pitch-shifting capabilities. It’s just a pitch-dropping pedal.

The DropTune’s design is simple. There are three footswitches: On/Off, Up, and Down. The On/Off switch is also labelled ‘effect’ (see the photos) while the Up switch is also labelled ‘toggle.’ I tested a prototype version that didn’t have these markings. Around the back there’s a guitar in, a line level pot, a line out, a USB port and the 12V DC 500mA power jack.

The DropTune allows you to drop the guitar’s pitch up to 3 ½ steps down in ½ step increments (ie: your low E can be changed to Eb, D, Db, C, B, Bb or A) as well as an octave-down setting and an octaver effect which blends the octave-down note with your original one.

So how does it sound in practice? Awesome. For testing I used an Ibanez RG7620 7-string with DiMarzio Crunch Lab and LiquiFire pickups. I set the DropTune so I could play the low B string with the effect bypassed, then switch it on and play the E string instead but dropped to mimic the low B. Toggling back and forth between the two strings, the main difference was one of punch. The harmonic complexity remained pretty much intact, but the digitally dropped note was a little looser and softer – warmer and not as snappy. Through a raging amp you probably wouldn’t even notice a difference. Slight latency can be detected if you listen really hard – not enough to be distracting and certainly less than I’ve experienced with using software amp sims in Pro Tools, for instance, but it’s more detectable when playing unaccompanied.

One of my favourite features on the DropTune is the Toggle button. Use this to switch the effect on and off rapidly for weird pitch flutters, or even just to mimic a few notes or chords on a phantom 7th string if you’re playing a 6-string. Where was this pedal when I was 16, trying to play Steve Vai’s ‘The Riddle’ on a 6-string and having to play the few 7th-string notes an octave higher on my 6-string?

It’s also very gratifying to be able to play songs in Eb or D without having to set up another guitar. Finally I can jam along to ‘Eruption,’ ‘Far Beyond The Sun’ and ‘Sad But True’ with accuracy and ease! Sweet!

During the time I had the DropTune, a firmware update was released, so I was able to try it out both before and after the update. It was pretty cool to be able to hear the product in development like this. Before the update there was a slight muddiness to the notes and a little bit of noticeable latency. After the update the latency was greatly reduced and the notes sounded a little punchier. Here’s a little recording I whipped up, using Dream Theater’s ‘Lie’ as an example. Here’s what you’ll hear after the count-in:

Bar 1: Panned hard left – riff on the B string (no Morpheus)
Bar 2: Panned middle – riff on the E string (Morpheus set to drop 5
semitones, before the firmware upgrade)
Bar 3: Panned hard right – riff onthe E string (Morpheus set to drop 5
semitones, after the firmware upgrade)
Bar 4-8: Panned left – riff on Be string (no Morpheus). Panned right –
riff on E string (Morpheus after firmware upgrade)

Then there’s a little solo, still using the Morpheus dropped down 5 semitones.

The post-upgrade E string version sounds eerily close to the B string version. Bar 2 before the upgrade is slightly muddier but Bar 3 has much of the same bite and snap as Bar 1. At the most, the sonic difference can be likened to using a different string gauge. There’s only the tiniest bit of latency but it’s barely even noticeable and certainly not distracting. In fact, the only distracting thing for me is hearing the natural pitch of the strings clashing with the Drop Tune when playing at bedroom volumes!

http://www.morpheusefx.com/

REVIEW: Eden WTB300V bass amp

I like plugging into a nice clean solid state bass amp as much as the next dude, but there are times when you really need to growl and snarl. That’s where the Eden WTB300V comes in. Eden has revamped their E300T amp into the WTB300V to make look as rockworthy as it sounds. As part of the new design you can see the valves from the front, making the amp look that extra bit evil. There’s also a groovy light-up Eden logo. But you can’t judge an amp on looks alone or we’d all be playing through little portable Pignose combos. So let’s check out the WTB300V’s innards.


Next to the input is a pad switch which reduces input gain by 10dB. Next there’s a gain control and an Overdrive button. The gain control is active whether you use the Overdrive button or not so you can balance it with your master volume to get the right amount of cleanliness or edge even if you’re using a clean setting. Next we have Bass, Mid and Treble pots with a Mid Shift button between the latter two which operates on the 500Hz and 2.2KHz frequencies. Finally there’s a Master Volume plus power and standby switches. Internally there are six independently biasable Ruby KT-88 output valves cranking out 320W RMS of pure rock power into 4 or 8 Ohms. Around the back we have 1/4” and NL-4 speaker output jacks, DI and tuner outputs, the 4/8 Ohm impedance selector and a footswitch jack. The included footswitch has two buttons, Mute and Overdrive, so even though the WTB300V is a single channel amp, the ability to switch the Overdrive section on or off remotely effectively turns it into a two-channel beast.

I tested the WTB300V with an Ibanez SR5006 Prestige Soundgear 6-string bass with active Bartolini pickups and a Yamaha Attitude bass with passive DiMarzio pickups. I used a Hartke 4X10 cabinet for testing. With the overdrive left off for now, the tone was be nice and even with good separation between the frequencies and good note definition even when blazing out fast passages. Something extra special seems to happen harmonically around the 12th fret which is great news for players who like to climb up there. Some of my favourite sounds occurred somewhere between clean and overdrive, where a softer pick attack resulted in cleaner notes while digging in harder bought out an angry, compressed edge. This was especially evident using slap and pop techniques on the 6-string. Nudging up the gain a little bit and flattening out the 6-string’s EQ brought out some warmth and colour which helped knit together tapped chords and picked arpeggios, really showing off how well-suited this amp would be not only for supportive bass players but also those who take lots of solos. I’d have no hesitation using it for a fusion gig, then packing it into the car and letting rip at a metal club. The distortion isn’t quite enough distortion for full-on extreme metal so we tried it out with a Big Muff fuzz to see how it handles ultra high gain and it sounded like doom on wheels. In a good way. We also ran a chorus through the effect loop and lowered the gain a little for a very convincing New Order tone. Switching to the Yamaha and reaching for a pick brought out those clicky, driving David Ellefson Megadeth tones, while going pickles and cranking the overdrive unleashed a Billy Sheehan-like firestorm. Also great for Tool tones if you bring the mids down a bit and crank the treble.

This is a great amp for those who need earthier textures, whether for rock, funk, jazz, blues, soul, some metal genres… in fact I can’t really think of a genre that wouldn’t benefit from having the low end coming out of the WTB300V if you’re after a warmer, smoother tone than that provided by solid state rigs.